Meeting the Iranian Challenge
Senator Joe Biden
Iowa City Public Library
Today, I'd like to speak to you about Iran. I want to address two questions many of you are asking.
Is war with Iran inevitable?
And can we avoid the other stark alternative - an Iran armed with nuclear weapons?
Earlier today, the intelligence community released what's called a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear intentions and capabilities.
The conclusions are, figuratively speaking, explosive.
The Estimate found that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and, as of the middle of this year, had not restarted it.
Iran did resume work on uranium enrichment, which is the most likely method it would use to produce the fissile material for a bomb.
But at its current pace, the NIE concluded that Iran could produce that material no earlier than the end of 2009 - but that this is very unlikely. More likely is that Iran will be capable of making enough material for a bomb sometime between 2010 and 2015.
This means that the answers to the questions I posed are no, war is not inevitable and yes, we can prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. There is still time for diplomatic engagement and economic pressure to work. There is still time to protect our interests without using force.
The Folly of War
War with Iran is not just a bad option. It would be a disaster.
We're talking about a country with nearly three times the population of Iraq - 70 million people - and infinitely more problems waiting for us if we attack.
The regime is unpopular, but it has millions of fervent supporters it will mobilize for war.
If you thought going to war with Iraq would be a "cakewalk" maybe that wouldn't deter you. But if you are a part of the reality-based community, it should -- and so should a few other facts.
First, with our armed forces over-stretched in Iraq and fighting in Afghanistan, we can't take on another major conflict.
And let's not kid ourselves: any military conflict with Iran is likely to become major.
Don't be fooled by talk of a "surgical" strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
It would probably require thousands of sorties by our air force, over two to three weeks. It would mean bombing Iran's radar sites and air force, repeatedly striking multiple targets across the country, securing the Straits of Hormuz and oil facilities throughout the Persian Gulf, and preparing for attacks against our troops, citizens, allies, and interests across the region and beyond.
What looks "limited" to us almost certainly would be seen as something much bigger by the Iranians and could spark an all-out war.
There's only one thing worse than a poorly planned, intentional war: an unplanned, unintentional war.
Second, military power can't provide a lasting solution. Air strikes can set back Iran's nuclear program, but they can't stop Tehran from restarting it.
Third, imagine the consequences beyond Iran.
In Iraq, our troops would be targets for retaliation. In Israel and Lebanon, Hamas and Hezbollah would be unleashed. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, enraged Muslim populations would make it much harder for moderate leaders to cooperate with us, if they didn't force them from office.
It is precisely because the consequences of war - intended or otherwise - can be so profound and complicated that our Founding Fathers vested in Congress, not the President, the power to initiate war, except to repel an imminent attack on the United States or its citizens.
They reasoned that requiring the President to come to Congress first would slow things down allow for more careful decision making before sending Americans to fight and die and ensure broader public support.
The Founding Fathers were, as in most things, profoundly right.
That's why I want to be very clear: if the President takes us to war with Iran without Congressional approval, I will call for his impeachment.
I do not say this lightly or to be provocative. I am dead serious. I have chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. I still teach constitutional law. I've consulted with some of our leading constitutional scholars. The Constitution is clear. And so am I.
I'm saying this now to put the administration on notice and hopefully to deter the President from taking unilateral action in the last year of his administration.
If war is warranted with a nation of 70 million people, it warrants coming to Congress and the American people first.
Talk Isn't Cheap
Even talk of war is counter-productive to our interests - it is literally a gift to President Ahmadinejad and the extremists.
When President Bush puts the words "Iran" and "World War III" in the same sentence or when the Senate votes to designate a large part of Iran's military a "terrorist" organization the main result is to increase tensions with Iran.
That, in turn, does two things.
First, it distracts the Iranian people from the incredible failures of Ahmadinejad's leadership, while silencing his critics and forcing them to rally around the flag.
Second, tension adds directly to the security premium we pay for oil -- an extra cost directly tied to the risk of conflict in the Middle East. The more tensions rise, the higher the security premium goes, because people betting on the long term price of oil anticipate supply disruptions.
Right now, a barrel of oil costs almost 100 dollars. But a full 30 dollars of that is the security premium.
That security premium comes out of your pockets at the pump or when you pay your home heating bills. It goes into Iran's coffers tens of billions of dollars propping up the extremists.
It's hard to think of a more self-defeating policy.
Policy Paralysis and Strategic Incoherence
If war with Iran is a terrible option, so is the possibility of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.
My concern is not that a nuclear Iran some day would be moved by messianic fervor to use a nuclear weapon as an Armageddon device and commit national suicide in order to hasten the return of the hidden Imam.
My worry is that the fear of a nuclear Iran could spark an arms race in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and others joining in.
Fortunately, as the National Intelligence Estimate makes clear, there is a significant window of opportunity in which to act to avoid the stark choice of war or a nuclear Iran.
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has long lacked a diplomatic strategy to take advantage of this window.
Instead, it has vacillated between policy paralysis and strategic incoherence.
And just when it seems to have adopted a more effective strategy, as it did with North Korea, the President or Vice President undermines it by raising the specter of war.
The administration wants to roll back Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. But that influence has accelerated as a result of this administration's policies -- literally a Bush-fulfilling prophecy.
Our failure to secure the peace in Iraq left a vacuum filled largely by militia and political parties aligned with Iran.
We're backing a government in Baghdad that Iran sees as a strong ally, while simultaneously trying to weaken Iran's influence in Iraq. The administration is in a tug-of-war with itself.
The Administration's failure to fully support President Abbas when he was first elected gave Hamas -- a close ally of Iran -- a political opening in the Palestinian territories.
Dick Lugar and I pleaded with the administration to provide Abbas direct assistance so he could demonstrate real progress to his people - and we warned that Abbas' failure would be Hamas's gain. I wish we had been wrong.
In Lebanon, when Syria withdrew, the administration failed to decisively support the government and army.
Iran's other favorite proxy, Hezbollah, became the strongest force in the country. Last summer, it provoked a war with Israel. Now it is intimidating the pro-Western government into capitulating over the choice of a new president.
Worst of all, instead of keeping its eye on the prize of preventing Iran from getting the bomb, this administration has been obsessed with the idea of getting rid of the Iranian regime.
None of us like the regime, but think about the logic: we want you to renounce your uranium enrichment and plutonium production programs - and by the way, when you do, we're still going to try to take you down.
The result is predictable: Iran has accelerated its efforts to enrich uranium and produce plutonium.
The administration's fixation with regime change also distances us from our allies and undermines a unified international approach.
It left us so isolated that in December 2004, one high-ranking American official admitted: "We're relying upon others, because we've sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran." That official was President Bush.
From Regime Change to Conduct Change
Instead of regime change, we need to focus on conduct change.
First, working with allies and partners, not acting alone, we must make it very clear to Iran what it risks in terms of isolation if it continues to defy the international community's demand that it stop enriching uranium.
But we also have to be just as clear about what it stands to gain -- in terms of economic benefits, security guarantees, integration into the region and diplomatic relations - if it does the right thing.
The National Intelligence Estimate makes clear that the right combination of pressure and positive incentives could "prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program."
And we have to be open to, not dismissive of, international inspections, which, done the right way, can shine an invaluable light on Iran's nuclear activities.
Second, we need to do a far better job managing great power relations with China, Russia, and our allies in Europe. We need a common understanding with them because they have more leverage than we do.
Even as Europe is reducing trade with Iran, China is picking up the slack. China can have a huge impact on Iran's calculus.
But getting China or Russia on the same page will not happen by delegating the matter to the State Department. It will require sustained, presidential-level engagement - something this Administration has shown little interest in or aptitude for.
Third, we must exploit growing cracks within the ruling elite and between Iran's rulers and its people.
Iran is not a monolith. President Ahmadinejad does not have the final word. And he is facing unprecedented opposition from a new alliance of pragmatic conservatives and reformers. They hope to defeat many Ahmedinejad supporters in elections for the Iranian parliament - the Majlis - next March.
Our biggest allies are the Iranian people. They are open to America. They don't like a regime that denies them basic political and social rights and that can't deal with corruption, high unemployment and inflation.
We should bring together renowned economists and the talented pool of Iranian-American business leaders.
I'd ask them to lay out a positive vision for what the Iranian economy could look like in five years if Iran's leaders make the right decisions, sanctions end, and Iran becomes integrated with the world economy. I'd ask them to detail the benefits that would flow to ordinary Iranians and I would make their findings widely known in Iran.
We should promote people-to-people interaction by changing our self-defeating sanctions laws that hinder American NGOs from spending their money to support Iranian NGOs.
When I tried to do this last year, the Bush Administration blocked me. Instead, it has pursued the disastrous policy of secretly funnelling US government money to Iranians, providing an excuse for the regime to crack down on scores of innocent Iranian activists.
And we should do everything in our power to engage the Iranian people.
They need to know it is their government, not the U.S. that is choosing confrontation over cooperation. So we should tone down the rhetoric and talk.
It's amazing how little faith this administration has in the power of America's ideas and ideals.
This is not armchair quarterbacking. In 2005, while the Bush Administration was shunning Iran's reformist President, I held the highest-level meeting in 25 years between any U.S. and Iranian official when I met with Iran's foreign minister.
And, just six weeks after President Bush's "axis of evil" speech, I proposed a direct dialogue between Congress and Iran's Majlis, which was then dominated by reformers. That single act sparked a two-week debate in Iran between reformers and hard-liners.
Imagine what would happen if the President of the United States offered to open talks today.
As President Kennedy said: "we should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate." The hard-liners thrive on confrontation. It gives them the excuse they need to stifle dissent. They fear engagement.
Fourth, Iran can't be dealt with in isolation. We have to connect the dots.
To weaken the hard-liners in Iran, we should actively encourage Israeli-Syrian talks. If we can weaken the Iranian-Syrian marriage of convenience, we can eliminate the main hub for Iran's projection of influence into the heart of the Middle East, through Hamas and Hezbollah.
I wouldn't trust the Syrians, but I would test them. Incredibly, the Bush Administration has actively discouraged Israel from talking to Damascus. Trying to isolate Syria has not improved its behavior. It has only driven Damascus closer to Tehran.
We also need determined diplomacy to drive a political settlement in Iraq. I've laid out a specific plan on how to do that. 75 US Senators - Democrats and Republicans - voted for it.
The plan calls for convening a UN conference with the major world powers, Iraq and its neighbors to build a political settlement based on the federalism provisions of Iraq's Constitution.
If we don't make Iran part of the solution, it will remain part of the problem. Yes, Iran likes the status quo, with us tied down, bleeding and unable to use Iraq as a launching pad into Iran.
But like all of Iraq's neighbors, Iran has no interest in Iraq's civil war turning into a regional war. If we leave without leaving behind a political settlement, Iran has as much to lose from the resulting chaos as we do.
We should be smart enough to play on that interest just as we should recognize our shared interests on Iran's Eastern border. In 2001, Iran cooperated closely with us in driving out the Taliban and establishing the Karzai government. We must re-defeat the Taliban and bring stability to Afghanistan.
And we need a Pakistan policy, not a Musharraf policy. I've laid one out in detail. For many in Iran, Pakistan is the emerging security threat. A nuclear-armed Pakistan aligned with or controlled by radicals who see the majority Shi'a of Iran as apostates is Iran's worst nightmare.
Fifth, we must end our dependence on the "Axis of Oil."
The lack of an energy policy goes to the heart of our problem with Iran. Dependence on high priced oil makes it easier for Iran to stand up to pressure and it makes it harder to get partners to stand with us.
The Bush administration has been AWOL. Thankfully, the Democratic Congress is making a start, with a push for much higher mileage standards over the next decade.
But we also need to make alternative fuels much more widely available. And we need to see energy saving technology as a huge opportunity for America, the most innovative nation on earth. We can invent it, build it and sell it. And we can reshape the world in the process.
So, to end where I began: We can avoid war with Iran. We can prevent a nuclear Iran.
We have time, but we don't have a comprehensive strategy.
As the next president, I will have to flip this administration's policy on its head. I will end the war in Iraq instead of starting war with Iran. I know what to do on both fronts. Thank you for listening.