WASHINGTON—The U.S. should change its approach on Iran by holding two-way talks and offering to ease punitive sanctions in exchange for nuclear concessions, according to a bipartisan group that has drawn support in the past from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
A report on Wednesday by the Iran Project, which is backed by a group of former diplomats, military officers and lawmakers, will recommend the U.S. promise to lighten sanctions if Iran reduces stockpiles of enriched uranium and provides other concessions.
“Here is an option that really ought to be looked at before you move to military force,” said veteran U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering. “The negotiation track should be made as robust and forward leading as the pressure track has been up until now.”
The report will say sanctions should be maintained, but as a bargaining chip to prod Iran to give up key parts of its nuclear program, including its supplies of uranium vital to making a bomb. The group says Tehran should be allowed to keep its low-enriched uranium.
The report also emphasizes that it is critical that any concessions by Iran be monitored by international agencies. The bilateral attacks should run alongside multilateral talks, the group says.
The approach resembles the Obama administration’s strategy, but heightens emphasis on diplomacy over punitive measures. The administration has repeatedly told Iran it wants to hold bilateral talks, but has been rebuffed by Tehran.
“Diplomacy is hard,” said Jim Walsh, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program and a backer of the project. “You have to want it and have to be willing to take risks. And right now, both sides are wary of one another.”
The report will say a diplomatic overhaul doesn’t mean backing off pressure or taking the threat of military action off the table. But President Barack Obama has intensified threats of military force in recent months, a shift about which the paper raises doubts.
“The more the president threatens the use of force, the more difficult it will be for Iran’s defiant leadership to consider any offer, and the more the president will be under pressure to use the military force,” it said.
The paper has been endorsed by Richard Lugar, the former Republican senator; Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq; Michael Hayden, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Lee Hamilton, who was a Democratic congressman and a co-chairman of the commission that studied the Sept. 11 attacks; Ann-Marie Slaughter, a top State Department official in the Obama administration; and Mr. Pickering, a former United Nations ambassador in the George H.W. Bush administration.
A previous Iran Project paper said a military attack on Iran would set back its nuclear program but carry unintended consequences. That paper was backed by Mr. Hagel, before he was nominated this year to become defense secretary.
“The secretary strongly supports the administration’s policy of prevention, which calls for Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapon,” said George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, when asked about the new report.
Mr. Pickering said the group didn’t approach currently serving officials for endorsements.
Many experts question the value of diplomacy in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, which the West charges is aimed at developing weapons, something Iran denies.
Fred Kagan, a defense expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Iran wants the capability to become a nuclear state and diplomacy stands little chance of success.
“It is naiveté about how the Iranians operate, and it is naiveté about what we are looking at,” Mr. Kagan said. “The Iranians have made the decision to acquire the capability to field a nuclear weapon.”
Iranian officials have rejected suggestions they make concessions on their nuclear program in return for a relaxation of the sanctions, he noted. He also said that by keeping its low-enriched uranium, it could maintain an ability to make a weapon relatively quickly.
“The breakout capability is still there,” Mr. Kagan said.
But Mr. Walsh pointed out that U.S. intelligence officials have said Iran hasn’t yet decided to make a nuclear bomb. “Iran has yet to make the political decision to make nuclear weapons. They have a basic capability but they haven’t crossed that line,” he said. “So this is precisely the moment where diplomacy is important. The story is not over.”
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