A Win-Win U.S. Strategy for Dealing with Iran
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Finally, the economic pain of sanctions would fall on the masses, not on government elites. Limited travel and financial sanctions targeted on regime elites would be worth pursuing in the absence of other tools, but they will only raise the costs of defiance. Broad new economic sanctions, such as an embargo on gasoline imports, would hurt the very people that the West is trying to empower, a flaw that even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has acknowledged. Although such measures would increase resentment, much of it might be directed against the West, not the government in Tehran. In Iran's hegemonic reach in the Middle East has grown appreciably in the last several years. contrast to democratic leaders in South Africa during apartheid, Iranian democrats have argued consistently that the people of Iran should not be hurt as a means to try to punish the regime.
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In large measure, Iran's leaders seek nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack. The regime's refrain about Iran's "inalienable right" to nuclear technology in the name of scientific progress is hollow, given the regime's contempt for every other right of the Iranian people and its pseudo-religious assault on social progress. At the same time, there is also an element of prestige associated with joining the nuclear club and a desire to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. These factors will to some extent persist in a democratic Iran, but a democratic Iran would not feel threatened by the United States or Israel and could well be an ally. Moreover, a democratic Iran will be a more rational and responsible country, drawn much more to development through economic and social integration with the West than to regional dominance through weapons.
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Yet, how this symbolic victory of unity in the international community and isolation of Iran will eventually lead to a suspension of Iran's nuclear program is not at all clear. In characteristic form for Iranian negotiators, Tehran has refused U.S. and European offers while hinting of compromise just enough to delay any serious attempt to assemble an effective UN sanctions regime. Further, if the Security Council ever does acquiesce to U.S. pressure for sanctions, the result is unlikely to be a robust sanctions regime that includes the export of oil and gas or the import of gasoline, which would cripple Iran's economy and those of many other countries with it. China recently signed a multibillion-dollar oil and gas agreement with Iran, making Beijing a very unwilling participant in a serious sanctions regime. Russia is also unlikely to agree to tough sanctions. Russian defense minister Sergei Lavrov recently bluntly stated, "We cannot support ultimatums that lead everyone to a dead end and cause escalation, the logic of which always leads to force."1 Russia, in addition to the Bushehr reactor that it has helped to build over the last decade, has many other economic interests in Iran, not the least of which is the hope that Bushehr will be the first of many lucrative contracts to build Russian nuclear power plants in Iran. Even the French and British will be reluctant to back sanctions that would hurt their economies. A sanction that includes oil exports will hike oil prices to levels that the Islamic republic wagers is unbearable for Europe.
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Structurally, Iran's middle-income status; its reasonably high levels of education and information; and its relatively strong national identity, drawing on a 5,000-year history, all augur well for Iran's democratic prospects if a transition were to begin. The legitimacy of the regime is already weak and declining among the broad bulk of the population. Dictators have a much greater probability of maintaining autocratic rule if they sustain either an ideology or a project that morally justifies their form of rule. In the first years of the Islamic republic, Khomeini championed such an ideology, which enjoyed popular support. He also internationally pursued an ideological mission that helped to create enemies abroad and thereby increase popular support for defending the regime at home. Today, however, Khomeini's ideological creed offers the existing regime little or no legitimacy. The cataclysmic toll of the war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988 exhausted popular support for revolutionary ideas and the regime that propagated them.