A new report by an influential group of diplomats and Middle East scholars says a nuclear-armed Iran would present a clear and present danger to U.S. interests, and urges President Bush to retain the option of using military force, if necessary, to disrupt Iran's nuclear ambitions. The recommendations on Iran are part of a study released by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that examines U.S. priorities on a variety of issues in the Middle East.
The report by the Washington Institute's Presidential Study Group says the three pillars of U.S. strategy in the Middle East should be security, reform and peace.
The report brought together a bi-partisan group of former high-ranking government officials and Middle East analysts to highlight challenges and recommend solutions to President Bush as he begins his second term in office.
Robert Satloff, the executive director of the institute, says the group identified the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, as the most serious threat to U.S. national security.
Mr. Satloff says Iran's nuclear program is of particular concern because if Tehran is able to develop nuclear weapons, such action would likely spark an arms race in the region.
"We suggest that Iran is such a threat because of two major problems," Mr. Satloff says. "One, the Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability would itself constitute a tipping point, which would likely trigger pursuit of nuclear weapons by numerous other Middle Eastern states. Secondly, we point out, that the acquisition of such a capability by Iran would only exacerbate problematic behavior that the Iranians already engage in and in such a negative way that it would constitute a clear and present danger to U.S. interests in this part of the world. For these two major reasons, stopping Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability, by diplomacy if possible, and other means if necessary, is a vital U.S. interest."
Mr. Satloff says the group urges the Bush administration to continue working with allies in Europe and on the U.N. Security Council to find a solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.
If diplomacy does not work he says the president should publicly retain the option of using military force and be prepared to use it.
In Germany on Wednesday, President Bush said it is vital that Iran hear the international community speak with one voice in urging Tehran not to develop nuclear weapons. On Tuesday the president ridiculed the notion that the United States is planning to use force, but he added all options remain open.
While Iran says it is obtaining nuclear technology for peaceful purposes to generate electricity, U.S. officials argue the country has vast oil and gas reserves and does not need nuclear energy.
Mr. Satloff says as part of America's overall Middle East policy, the administration needs to increase efforts to establish relationships with Muslims opposed to terrorism and violence.
"Our objective needs to be to reach out to all of those Muslims who oppose extremism," Mr. Satloff says. "Recognizing that many of them may oppose different aspects of our policy, whether it be Iraq, whether it be Arab-Israeli issues, that this, creating sets of coalitions of Muslims who themselves are repelled by, fearful of and oppose Islamist extremism is a vital American interest."
The Washington Institute's presidential study group also looked at the continuing conflict in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, who is now a top analyst with the research organization, says if there is one overriding agreement in the report, it is that the United States cannot afford to fail in Iraq.
"I think that the consensus that we came to about what is success in Iraq is that you have an outcome where you have what is a unified country, but it is a unified country in a federal system," Mr. Ross says. "It is a federal system in which there is rough representation, there is tolerance for minorities, there is a government and localities that are decent toward their own people and while the country is capable of providing security for itself, it is not a threat to its neighbors."
The institute's report also identified what it called new opportunities to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Mr. Ross says the presidential study group advocates a "first things first" approach to support newly elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel's planned withdrawal later this year from Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank.
Mr. Ross says all parties should refrain from discussing longer-term issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state and the future of Jerusalem.
"Right now we have to ensure that the Palestinian leadership is seen as being successful and that Gaza withdrawal works," Mr. Ross says. "If we suddenly were to focus right now at this stage on putting out what is in fact our view, an American view of what is a solution, then we are very likely to upset the delicate balance that is required to make the near-term efforts succeed."
The Washington Institute's report says Palestinian political reform and a successful Israeli withdrawal from Gaza could provide a powerful impetus to resumption of negotiations for the final resolution of the conflict and the creation of a Palestinian state.