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Signatories include Panetta, Petraeus, Flournoy, Ross

Ex-officials urge Biden: ‘Restore Iran’s fear’ to boost chances of nuclear diplomacy

Joint statement calls for administration to arrange military drills, other actions to convince Tehran ‘it will suffer severe consequences if it stays on its current path’

An illustrative photo of an US Air Force F-16, below, escorting two F-35 jets, above, after the latter arrived at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, September 2015. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
An illustrative photo of an US Air Force F-16, below, escorting two F-35 jets, above, after the latter arrived at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, September 2015. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

A group of former US senior officials urged President Joe Biden to arrange high-profile military exercises or other actions to strike fear into Iran, amid stalled diplomatic talks on restoring the nuclear deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

In a joint statement initiated by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the former officials backed a diplomatic approach but noted Iran has continued to ramp up uranium enrichment in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal, which president Donald Trump withdrew the United States from in 2018.

“Without convincing Iran it will suffer severe consequences if it stays on its current path, there is little reason to hope for the success of diplomacy,” they wrote in the statement dated Thursday.

“For the sake of our diplomatic effort to resolve this crisis, we believe it is vital to restore Iran’s fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force against it by the United States,” they added. “The challenge is how to restore US credibility in the eyes of Iran’s leaders.”

As things stand, they warned, the on-off “Vienna negotiations are in danger of becoming a cover for Iran to move toward achieving a threshold nuclear weapons capability.”

The signatories of the letter were former defense secretary Leon Panetta; retired general David Petraeus; former undersecretary of defense Michele Flournoy; former US representatives Howard Berman and Jane Harman; and the Washington Institute’s Robert Satloff and Dennis Ross.

“We believe it is important for the Biden administration to take steps that lead Iran to believe that persisting in its current behavior and rejecting a reasonable diplomatic resolution will put to risk its entire nuclear infrastructure,” they wrote.

Illustrative: Army Gen. David Petraeus, left, top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and incoming CIA Director, greets then US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, as he lands in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 2011. (AP Photo/Paul J. Richards, Pool)

Among the options they floated were the staging of military exercises by US Central Command, “potentially in concert with allies and partners,” that simulate attacks on Iranian targets.

“Also important would be to provide both local allies and partners as well as US installations and assets in the region with enhanced defensive capabilities to counter whatever retaliatory actions Iran might choose to make, thereby signaling our readiness to act, if necessary,” the former officials said.

They urged the US “to act forcefully against other Iranian outrages,” arguing this “might have the salutary impact of underscoring the seriousness of US commitments to act on the nuclear issue.”

The former officials also called for the Biden administration to give humanitarian assistance to Iran such as COVID-19 vaccines, “regardless of the diplomatic impasse.”

“We believe a diplomatic agreement that fully and verifiably ensures Iran’s nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes remains the best way to address the Iran nuclear challenge,” they said. “To avoid military conflict by us or any other actor that believes itself threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, we need to maximize the prospects for such an agreement… But no less essential than clarifying what Tehran stands to gain is restoring Iran’s fear that it will suffer severe consequences if it refuses.”

“The time to act is now.”

A national flag of Iran waves in front of the building of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)

The release of the statement came as the US has increasingly spoken of a “Plan B” of pressure if ongoing talks to restore the nuclear deal fail.

On Friday, a Biden administration official warned Iran’s nuclear breakout time was now “really short,” as the nuclear negotiations in Vienna adjourned after Iran requested a fresh pause in the talks.

The talks had just resumed in late November after a five-month break following the election of a new hardline government in Iran.

Former US president Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018 and imposed sweeping sanctions including a unilateral US ban on Iran’s oil sales, vowing to bring the US adversary to its knees.

Biden supports a return to the agreement negotiated by predecessor Barack Obama, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but has been frustrated by the pace of resurrection efforts.

AFP contributed to this report.

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