Coping with a Nuclearising Iran
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The Iranian populace is more susceptible to American influences on cultural and social matters than to Washington’s views on foreign and security policy. Iran’s drive to become economically, technologically and militarily self-sufficient hinders US economic and diplomatic leverage on the nuclear programme. As a revolutionary state, the Islamic Republic is willing to absorb a significant amount of pain and isolation in order to achieve ‘independence’, regional power and prestige. However, the regime will not be able to stifle indefinitely popular demands for a more democratic, accountable and open political system. Consistent American support for these values, espoused across the region and not just targeted on Iran, offers the best hope of eventually achieving all three of America’s prime objectives [restraining Iran's external behaviour, moderating its domestic politics, and reversing its nuclear-weapons programme].
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The closer Iran moves toward testing and deploying nuclear weapons, the more negative the consequences for regional and global security. Uncertainty regarding Iran’s actual capacity, while itself a source of anxiety, would be less provocative than certainty of such a capacity. The region has lived with an unacknowledged Israeli nuclear arsenal since the late 1960s, and could conceivably do the same with a similarly discreet Iranian capacity. Better yet would be a certainty, derived from intrusive verification meas- ures, that Iran, while capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons, had not actually done so. Worst of all would be a situation in which Iran had openly breached the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), tested and deployed nuclear weapons, and begun to articulate a doctrine for their use. This latter situa- tion would be the most likely to prompt other states to go down the same path, while maximising the levels of tension and anxiety among regional governments and populations.
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A more reasonable apprehension is not that nuclear deterrence would not work, but rather that it would. A nuclear- armed Iran would be able to deter the United States from reacting forcefully to Iranian misbehaviour. With the threat of American (and Israeli) retaliation effectively removed, Iran could employ its non- military instruments of influence even more aggressively than in the past. This fear too seems overblown. It is most unlikely that Iran would actu- ally employ nuclear weapons for any reason short of regime preservation, particularly since Iran will remain inferior to all the other nuclear powers more or less indefinitely. Given crushing American superiority across the entire military (and economic and political) spectrum, there are any number of potential responses available to the United States short of forced regime change with which to deter or punish Iranian transgressions.
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Soft power. Regime change is the best, maybe the only path to achieving all three main American objectives [restraining Iran's external behaviour, moderating its domestic politics, and reversing its nuclear-weapons programme]. But explicit American efforts to bring about such change, whether overt or covert, will probably have the reverse effect, helping perpetuate the regime and strengthen its current leaders. For the immediate future, therefore, the best thing the United States can do to encourage political reform in Iran is to support democratisation in other Middle Eastern countries where the United States has greater access and influence. Adopting a region-wide and indeed globally consistent approach to democratisation is important to establishing the credibility of American support for reform in Iran.
Soft power should be envisaged more as a magnet than a lever. The best way of employing the attractive elements of American society is simply to remove barriers to exposure. Making Internet censorship more difficult is one way of doing this. Facilitating travel, commerce and study abroad is alsoimportant. Sanctions erect barriers to his kind of exposure. These barriers represent an unavoidable trade-off between the objectives of containment and the promotion of domestic reform, a trade-off that needs to be carefully considered each time new sanctions are levied or old ones renewed.
Reformers in Iran are pressing for evolution, not revolution. The Green Movement is not seeking to overturn the Iranian constitution’s unique mixture of republican and Islamic elements, but rather to give more reality to the former. Oddly enough, President Ahmadinejad is challenging the status quo from the other end of the political spectrum. In the short term, neither the Green Movement nor Ahmadinejad seems likely to succeed. But Iran has a young, reasonably well-educated population, one increasingly plugged into the world around it. Even as the United States seeks to isolate and penalise Iran for its external misbehaviour and nuclear ambitions, it should be seeking to maximise the exposure of its population to America, the West and the newly dynamic Middle East. By the same token, the United States should avoid any association with separatist elements and extremist groups, whom the vast bulk of the Iranian people reject.
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Deterrence. The United States successfully deterred a much more power- ful Soviet Union for over 40 years. Some argue that Iran is different, that its leaders are irrational, and that the threat of devastating retaliation would not dissuade it from employing or threatening to employ nuclear weapons. While this fear is understandable, given occasionally heated Iranian rhetoric, there is nothing in the Islamic Republic’s actual behaviour throughout its existence to substantiate the charge of irrationality, let alone suicidal lunacy. Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whatever their other flaws, are models of mental health and restrained behaviour compared to Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong.
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Iran is seeking nuclear weapons for some combination of security, influ- ence and prestige. Persuading the Iranian leadership that renouncing the NPT and building, testing and deploying nuclear weapons will increase its isolation, diminish its influence and confirm its pariah status is the best way of dissuading the regime from crossing that threshold. This effort at per- suasion cannot really begin until the United States acknowledges that the Iranian programme probably will not be reversed, and commences prepara- tions to deal with the consequences.
An all-or-nothing American approach, one that insists on full roll-back of enrichment before any easing of sanctions can take place, risks allowing the best to become the enemy of the good, as neither the current nor any future regime in Iran is likely to accept restrictions over and above those required by the NPT. On the other hand, a full abandonment of sanctions in exchange for a promise not to weaponise, even if fully monitored, would still leave Iran out of compliance with other of its treaty obligations. Sanctions should, therefore, be deployed for both long- and short-term purposes. The long- term objective should be to bring Iran fully into compliance with the NPT. The short-term objective should be to halt the Iranian programme short of weaponisation.