WASHINGTON — The United States should extend its nuclear umbrella to its Middle East allies and offer enriched civilian-use uranium to Iran and other countries in the region to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, two respected former presidential national-security advisors told senators Thursday.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who advised President Jimmy Carter, and Brent Scowcroft, an adviser to President George H.W. Bush, offered an outline of what they thought President Barack Obama's approach to Iran should be.
Both agreed that the White House should negotiate directly with Tehran to stop Iran from producing a weapon that could threaten Israel and destabilize an already shaky Middle East.
However, they differed on how the talks should be conducted. Brzezinski suggested starting with low-level discussions to avoid giving President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad something to crow about before Iran's elections in June.
"I'd rather start them at the low level, low-key fashion before the elections so that Ahmadinejad cannot claim during the course of the elections that 'The Americans are waiting to negotiate with Iran after I am defeated,' which would then perhaps help him," Brzezinski said.
Scowcroft said he'd push for talks in as "comprehensive a fashion as we can" and "on all fronts" because of the complex nature of the Iranian government.
"We're not used to talking to the Iranians, so that will take some time," he said. "Even finding out who to talk to will be a major challenge. . . . This will take exquisite diplomacy."
The Obama administration made its first public overture to Tehran on Thursday, inviting Iran to an international conference March 31 to help carve out a strategy for Afghanistan, which borders Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the invitation in Brussels, Belgium, after she met there with NATO foreign ministers.
Brzezinski suggested that before any serious discussions with Tehran, the United States should say that it's prepared to extend its nuclear umbrella to friends and allies in the Middle East.
"A U.S. nuclear umbrella would re-emphasize the importance of deterrence," he said. "I think we have, to some extent, lost sight of the relevance of our very extensive experience with nuclear deterrence. It has worked. It worked with the Stalinist regime, which was ominous, tyrannical and murderous. It worked with the Chinese, whose leaders talked about a nuclear war not being so serious because it would only kill 300 million people. The Indians and the Pakistanis have managed to deter each other, knock on wood, so far."
Scowcroft suggested that the United States offer to provide Iran and other countries with enriched uranium for nuclear power plants at a discount and take charge of removing spent nuclear fuel.
"If Iran continues to enrich uranium, I suspect that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey will be compelled to have the same capability as they move toward development of their civilian nuclear-power program," Scowcroft said. "And soon we would have a flood of enrichment programs, hurling many countries within a few steps of producing weapons-grade uranium. . . . That would not be a better world for anyone."
Both men suggested that the Obama White House not place time limits on talks, countering a recommendation that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., made during a hearing Tuesday.
Time limits "create a sense of urgency and pressure which (prevents) serious exploration of the issues," Brzezinski said. "We should consult very quietly with our allies about what alternative means of pressure we may choose at some point to apply."
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