Debating Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations
[ Page 102-102 ]
With the demise of Saddam’s regime in neighboring Iraq, an Iranian nuclear weapons program has lost any compelling strategic rationale. Iran has used Israel as an all-purpose bogey to criticize the United States for picking on select regimes that possess WMD, to ingratiate itself with the Arab states by supporting the Palestinians, and to argue that the threat posed by Israel justifies Iran’s own missile program. No one in Tehran or elsewhere has suggested that Iran seeks to confront Israel militarily or that Iran would be willing to enter into conflict with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. Indeed, this is precisely the reason that Iran has preferred to use support for proxy groups (such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad) to demonstrate its support of the Palestinians. Israel has served as a diversion and a pretext in that Tehran uses its support for the Palestinians to deflect its neighbors’ concerns about Iran’s own WMD programs. At the same time, Iran’s support for the Palestinians is the Islamic Republic’s cynical attempt to gain leverage against the West.
[ Page 105 ]
As argued above, analysts have often inferred the unstated case for Iran’s nuclear weapons development to be the rough regional neighborhood—the possession of nuclear weapons by Pakistan; Israel; Russia; and the new Middle East actor, the United States. Yet, Iran has no historic enemies; existential threats; or giant, hostile neighbors requiring it to compensate for a military imbalance with a nuclear program. A realistic assessment of Iran’s security interests does not stretch to include confronting Israel on behalf of extremist Palestinians, a minority within their own land. The implicit rationale for the nuclear weapons program lies in the worldview of the hard-liners, who see the program as the ultimate guarantor of Iran’s influence and security and, not incidentally, their own political power. Meanwhile, by arguing that all nuclear technology, peaceful and military, is necessary for Iran’s development, the hard-liners have been able (with considerable help from Washington) to confuse the issue, at least within Iran. If encouraged actually to examine the motivations for pursuing a nuclear weapons program, Iranians would likely realize that it makes little strategic sense.
[ Page 103 ]
Iran’s invocation of its proximity to Pakistan as a rationale for developing nuclear weapons appears to be even less realistic. Iran and Pakistan have no major bilateral disputes; the principal tensions arise from Pakistan’s failure to manage its domestic sectarian rivalries, which has resulted in occasional violence between Pakistan’s Sunni and Shi‘a communities. Pakistan is necessarily preoccupied with its problems with India, largely over Kashmir, leaving it little energy or inclination for other confrontations. Iran has now established good relations with India, which provides Tehran with further insurance. The only conceivable rivalry that might arise between Iran and Pakistan would result from Iran’s very decision to acquire nuclear weapons, thus making the rivalry a self-fulfilling prophecy. In that event, Pakistan might be tempted to assist Saudi Arabia down the same path. In sum, it is difficult to find a plausible strategic rationale for Iran to seek nuclear weapons.3
[ Page 113 ]
Iranians can come to the right conclusion about the country’s nuclear program for themselves if the issues are framed in terms of realistic advantages and disadvantages for their country and their individual livelihoods rather than wrapped up in the myth that a nuclearized Iran is tantamount to an independent, secure, and progressing Iran. Impartial and sustained encouragement from nations that assert themselves as friends of Iran rather than define it as their foe can help bring this needed debate to the surface as there exists no necessary or inevitable contradiction between Iran’s security needs and nuclear nonproliferation. Ultimately, the best nonproliferation decision is one that is made indigenously; based on Iranians’ own assessment of their country’s national interests, such a decision would prove durable and legitimate. Such a decision can be encouraged by the international community, and perhaps especially the EU, which is less shy about offering inducements for good behavior. Iran should be able to see the benefits and rights accorded to states that act responsibly as international good citizens. The United States and its allies should thus encourage this wide-ranging internal debate in tandem with external efforts to induce or compel Iran to comply with nonproliferation norms.
[ Page 112 ]
For an internal Iranian debate to bear fruit, however, the United States will need to give the impression that it will accept Iranian compliance and not pocket concessions from Tehran as a prelude to making further demands. Some Iranians currently believe that, even if they accept the Additional Protocol, more demands will be forthcoming and that such concessions will open the door for the United States to seek regime change. Whatever the desirability of such a change, hard-nosed U.S. attitudes will not bring it to fruition. It is more realistic to pressure for legitimate ends, combined with the prospect of much better relations if and when the regime does change its policies as well as its politics. Washington will be challenged to pursue a subtle approach that supports democratic movements in Iran and feeds their impulse to install an accountable government that is under the scrutiny of the public and represented by elected officials.
[ Page 106 ]
Discussion in Iran on the country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons thus far has tended to focus on Iran’s right to acquire the technology needed to develop an independent nuclear energy program, even though weapons-related implications clearly follow. U.S. efforts to impede the flow of requisite technology have been cast by the hard-liners as an attempt to keep Iran backward and dependent. Washington’s policy has been depicted as animated by hostility toward an independent Iran. The principle of independence, of course, was one of the touchstones of the Iranian revolution, and few Iranians of whatever political persuasion—nationalists, secularists, or advocates of a strict religious government—would dissent from its importance. The long and painful history of foreign intervention in Iran (of Russia and Great Britain in Persia and, more recently, of U.S. influence in Iran) makes the issue of independence a critical point for Iranians.
[ Page 111 ]
The United States should lead the attempt to energize such a debate in Iran by providing the data and encouraging forums required for such discussions, which, after all, are largely technical and specialized. The better informed the debate, the greater the chances of a healthy skepticism about the panacea promised by those pushing the nuclear program. U.S. policy choices are delicate, as Washington cannot appear to dictate terms or to bully, nor should it interfere in an internal debate. Rather, it needs to help foster that debate. To this end, the United States must first make clear why there are concerns about Iran’s program, noting the precise components that are unarguably weapons related. Second, the United States should consider the alternatives to nuclear energy for Iran given the energy rationale for the program. Third, the United States should consider what technologies it would be prepared to provide, sell, or finance as substitutes. Finally, the United States should encourage nongovernmental organization (NGO) experts to discuss and analyze the economics of Iran’s energy programs to improve the debate within Iran. This could include track II meetings of experts and contacts among specialized NGOs. At the very least, the debate in Iran would expose those in the regime who are reluctant to allow tighter inspections or more transparency in the program.
[ Page 11 ]
More fundamentally, the challenge of detecting small-scale weaponization work is much greater than the challenge of monitoring higher-profile, less easily concealed activities related to the production of fissile materials. With or without full knowledge of the past, it is hard to imagine reaching agreement on monitoring arrangements intrusive enough to provide confidence that Iran has no ongoing weaponization activities. For example, among the measures that could be helpful in providing such confidence would be arrangements for closely and frequently keeping track of the activities of Iranian scientists with the necessary expertise or for verifying on site the end-uses of equipment throughout Iran that could be used in nuclear weapons design and diagnostics.
However, such intrusive arrangements are simply unrealistic. No sovereign state will permit that level of external scrutiny. Full knowledge of past Iranian activities would not make it any easier to persuade Tehran to accept such monitoring. That is why deterring weaponization activities must depend less on agreed monitoring measures and more on intelligence capabilities, procurement restrictions, and the threat of harsh penalties for violations.