Delay, Deter, and Contain, Roll-Back: Toward a Strategy for Dealing with Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
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Lack of Public Commitment to Nuclear Weapons: While senior Iranian officials have extolled Iran's pursuit of civilian nuclear technology, they have thus far avoided a similar, unequivocal rhetorical embrace of nuclear weapons. This is, no doubt, in large part due to Iran's status as an NPT signatory. Should Iran decide to acquire nuclear weapons, moreover, it might adopt a policy of nuclear ambiguity, to avoid an open breach of its NPT obligations and an adverse international reaction. In this way, it might remove from the table one factor that could diminish the prospects for successful roll back, should it decide to alter course. For this reason, the U.S. should avoid menacing words or actions that might cause Iran to openly embrace nuclear weapons.
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Although it may not be feasible now or in the near future, the U.S. should not exclude the possibility at some distant future date of nuclear roll back (i.e., the voluntary renunciation of the pursuit or ownership of nuclear weapons) in Iran – particularly in light of Libya's recent surprise decision to scrap its nuclear, chemical, and ballistic missile programs. Setting the conditions for nuclear roll back in the Islamic Republic, as implausible as it may now seem, should be a long-term goal of the U.S. Since World War II, there have been nine cases of nuclear roll back: Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. (If Libya follows through on its recent commitment, there will be ten.) Argentina and Brazil abandoned their nuclear weapons programs following the transition from military to civilian rule in both states. South Africa, despite a significant investment in nuclear weapons, gave them up with the end of the Cold War and apartheid. And Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine – successor states of the Soviet Union – gave up their nuclear inheritance in return for political and economic blandishments by the U.S. and others. In light of these successes of the past decade, it is worthwhile assessing the various factors that have led to roll back elsewhere and consider their relevance to Iran. Studies of roll back have identified five key factors critical to roll back decisions: political change, altered perceptions of the military utility of nuclear weapons, external pressure and inducements (such as financial blandishments, and positive or negative security assurances), economic constraints, and the lack of a public commitment to the possession of nuclear weapons
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Political Change: Roll back may come about as a result of a change in policy by the country's leadership, a change of governments, or as a result of regime change. It is possible that the current government in Tehran might abandon its nuclear ambitions in response to foreign pressure; indeed, some claim that the October 21st Agreement signals just such a change in course. Others, however, believe that this was a tactical move reminiscent of dramatic policy reversals by other regional leaders forced to bend by external pressures (e.g., Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, Yassir Arafat after the 1991 Gulf War), that were undone once circumstances changed or external pressures abated. It remains to be seen whether Iran's current leadership will go beyond the October 21st Agreement. Initial signs are not very promising. Fundamental political change in Tehran may be a necessary condition for nuclear roll back in Iran. Such change seems inevitable, given that the overwhelming majority of Iranian youth are alienated from the political system, want change, and will someday likely be in a position to achieve it. It is not clear, however, that political change would be sufficient for roll back. To the degree that it is possible to assess elite and popular opinion in Iran on such matters, support for the country's nuclear program appears to come from across the political spectrum, and a new government or regime might remain wedded to the pursuit of 'the bomb.'
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So what are Iran's possible motives for going nuclear? Prestige is certainly one consideration—that was a factor even when the shah was in power. But prestige does not appear to be the dominant reason in Iran's case today. Deterrence, both regional and extraregional, seems to be a more important consideration. Iran is located in a volatile region, surrounded by hostile neighbors. Russia, Israel, Pakistan, and India all have nuclear weapons already, so regional deterrence issues probably loom large for Tehran. Iran very likely is also reacting to U.S. actions. President Bush's "axis of evil" speech, linking Iran to Iraq and North Korea, came as a prelude to an invasion and occupa- tion of Iraq. A policymaker in Tehran (or Pyongyang) seeing his country linked to Iraq in that fashion might well assume that his country will also be on the U.S. hit list at some point.
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In light of the diminished efficacy of technology denial and the uncertain – if not dubious – prospects offered by diplomacy, preventive action (both covert operations and overt military action) might prove tempting as a means of imposing additional delays on Iran’s nuclear program and buying more time. Preventive action, however, would face formidable intelligence, technical, and political challenges. Effective preventive action will require detailed, accurate, and comprehensive intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. track record with regard to its ability to follow nuclear developments in Iraq, North Korea, and Iran is not particularly reassuring and raises doubts as to whether it can meet the high bar required for preventive action in Iran. It is also likely that significant portions of the Iranian program have been dispersed and remain hidden, complicating preventive action. Finally, the U.S. would have to deal with the possibility of international censure, an anti-American nationalist backlash in Iran (whose population has, until now, been generally friendly to the U.S.), and Iranian retaliation, which might take the form of a protracted and far-flung campaign of terrorism against U.S. interests around the world.
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Finally, there is the threat of nonconventional terrorism. The fact that Iran or its agents have not yet used chemical and/or biological agents in terrorist attacks may indicate the existence of a normative threshold, or it may indicate that, having achieved significant successes by conventional terrorism, Tehran and its surrogates perceive no need to incur the risk that use of nonconventional weapons would entail. Nonetheless, because of the importance that Tehran has traditionally attached to preserving deniability, Iran is likely to seek, when acting against more powerful adversaries, the ability to deliver nonconventional arms by non-traditional means (for instance, terrorists, boats, or remotely piloted aircraft). Because such methods offer the possibility of covert delivery, they are likely to become important adjuncts to more traditional delivery means such as missiles, and in situations in which deniability is a critical consideration, they are likely to be the delivery means of choice. The possibility of deniable, covert delivery of nuclear weapons by Iran could pose a major challenge for deterrence – particularly if the regime believed that its survival was at stake.
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Likewise, the acquisition of nuclear weapons could embolden Iran’s leadership to engage in aggressive, even reckless behavior. Thus, a nuclear Iran may be more inclined to take risks vis-à-vis Israel, in the belief that its nuclear capability would deter major acts of retaliation. This may have been the assumption underpinning the assertion in a December 2001 Friday prayer sermon by ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Expediency Council chairman, that:
"If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality."
While Rafsanjani’s sermon lends itself to alternative readings – as either a matter-of-fact description of strategic reality in a Middle East in which more than one country has nuclear weapons or, more ominously, as a statement of intent – it raises the disquieting possibility that some Iranians may see nuclear weapons as a means of pursuing an eliminationist solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This would not be surprising in light of the prevalence of anti-Israel vitriol in the public political discourse of both “liberal” reformers and conservative hardliners.
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The perception, however, of Iran as an irrational, undeterrable state with a high pain threshold is wrong. Iranian decision-makers are generally not inclined to rash action. Within the context of a relatively activist foreign and defense policy, they have generally sought to minimize risk by shunning direct confrontation and by acting through surrogates (such as the Lebanese Hezbollah) or by means of stealth (Iranian small boat and mine operations against shipping in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War) in order to preserve deniability and create ambiguity about their intentions. Such behavior is evidence of an ability to gauge accurately the balance of power and to identify and circumvent the ‘red lines’ of its adversaries – a strong indicator of an ability to engage in rational calculation. Furthermore, Iranian officials seem to use the language of deterrence as it is spoken and understood in the West. Shortly after the Shehab-3 missile test launch in July 1998, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani explained that to bolster Iran’s deterrent capability:
We have prepared ourselves to absorb the first strike so that it inflicts the least damage on us. We have, however, prepared a second strike which can decisively avenge the first one, while preventing a third strike against us.
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Such pragmatism is consistent with a basic principle of decision-making established by Khamanei shortly before his death. In a series of letters to then President Ali Khamenei and the Council of Guardians in December 1987 and January 1988, he affirmed the Islamic government’s authority to destroy a mosque or suspend the observance of the five pillars of faith (the fundamentals of Muslim observance) if Iranian state interests so required. In so doing, he sanctioned the supremacy of state interest over both religion and the doctrine of the Revolution.14 Ever since then, national interest has been the guiding principle of Iranian decision-making, whether with regard to social issues (such as birth control), the economy (foreign investment in the oil sector), or foreign and defense policy (restraint in pursuing efforts to export the revolution since the early 1990s).
This line of reasoning has implications for Tehran’s claim that Islam prevents it from acquiring or using nuclear weapons. Aside from the fact that strong circumstantial evidence would seem to contradict this assertion (including Tehran’s procurement efforts, its failure to meet its reporting requirements under the NPT, and its participation in clandestine enrichment and reprocessing activities), experience also shows that Iranian decision-making on critical policy issues is generally based on reasons of state, not religious doctrine or ideology.
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Tehran’s conduct during the later stages of the Iran-Iraq War likewise demonstrated that Iran is not insensitive to costs. It is possible to argue that in the heady, optimistic, early days of the revolution – from the early-to-mid 1980s – Iran had a higher threshold for pain than did most other states. During the early years of the war, Tehran was willing to endure hardships, make great sacrifices, and incur heavy losses in support of the war effort – eschewing the opportunity for a cease-fire in 1982 to pursue the overthrow of the Ba‘ath regime in Baghdad and the export of the Revolution. But in its final years, popular support for the war with Iraq had waned: the population was demoralized and wearied by years of inconclusive fighting, making it increasingly difficult to attract volunteers for the front, and many clerics had come to the conclusion that the war was unwinnable.13 This was not, as Ayatollah Khamanei was fond of saying, ‘a nation of martyrs.’