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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Iran?

Elliott Abrams wants ‘crippling sanctions’ … for now

Ari M. Brostoff
May 04, 2010
Elliott Abrams.(Council on Foreign Relations)
Elliott Abrams.(Council on Foreign Relations)

Yesterday, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “dominating” the first day of a United Nations conference on nuclear arms reduction just a few blocks up the street, three experts on the Iranian president’s ambitions—including Elliott Abrams, the influential Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush foreign policy adviser recently profiled by Tablet Magazine—took the stage at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women to discuss “What to Do About Iran’s Nuclear Program.”

Although Abrams is best known as an architect of neoconservative foreign policy, he, along with Robin Wright, a veteran foreign affairs journalist, and David Albright, an authority on the technical side of nuclear weaponry, all spoke with the profound intellectual ambivalence of chessmasters facing an equally brilliant opponent. “It’s hard to believe that Iran’s not making nuclear weapons, but it’s very hard to prove that Iran is making nuclear weapons,” Albright admitted. And the point at which the United States will decide to take stronger action against Ahmadinejad’s regime, he added, will likely be the point at which we can no longer say with certainty that Iran does not have nukes. It’s the kind of Schrödinger’s cat scenario that gave schoolchildren and senior policy analysts anxiety attacks during the Cold War.

No one on stage was itching for either an immediate U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iran, though Abrams, more than the others, argued that such a strike could eventually become the best available option. Even Abrams maintained that, for now, a window remains open for the U.N. Security Council to impose “crippling sanctions” on Iran—essentially, stopping the country from exporting oil and importing petroleum—in a bid to stoke government-toppling unrest among Iran’s civilians. But that window is closing, Abrams noted: “They don’t talk about ‘crippling sanctions’ anymore—they talk about ‘sanctions that bite.’ But I can tell you, what’s going to come out of the Security Council is sanctions that nibble.”

Ultimately, the crowd seemed to have a much clearer opinion of “What to Do About Iran’s Nuclear Program” than the speakers did. The panelists, seated beneath twin American and Israeli flags, only occasionally brought up Israel, and when they did, they discussed it as just one of several important players in the Iranian nukes game. But every time the prospect of an Israeli military strike came up, the crowd cheered. The garrulous man sitting next to me, a retired civil servant named Michael Kirmayer who wore a “Friends of the IDF” cap and wristbands calling for the release of Gilad Shalit, knew exactly what ought to be done: bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran. “Bush wanted to do it, but was stopped by liberal left anti-Israel people,” he told me. “I have no question,” he added, “that Obama’s not qualified or competent to be president of this country.”

I’ll take Elliott Abrams any day.

Related: The Shadow Viceroy [Tablet Magazine]

Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.