Iran: Options for the Next Presidency
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Whatever the expectations might be, the prospects for political change in Iran are slim: civil society faces increasing governmental repression, while religious conservatives tighten their grip on power, pushing aside both veterans who helped found the Islamic regime thirty years ago and reform-minded politicians accused of being disloyal to the revolution. The results of Iran's March 2008 elections confirmed the conservative consolidation of power; the relationship between the Supreme Leader and the president may be more intimate than most observers believe; and the growing power of the military and paramilitary forces since 2005 does not provide grounds for optimism. The Iranian economy is essentially driven by the price of oil while basic investments are not made; although criticism of economic management is widespread in Iran from both hardline and pragmatic conservatives, it has produced little change so far (however, the current sharp decline in oil prices would allow additional international pressure to work, since the only legitimacy of the regime since 2005 is the improvement of the economy). Finally, it may be worth recalling that even the reputedly less difficult interlocutors—the so-called pragmatists, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani—would still adopt an uncompromising policy on the nuclear program.
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Second, measure Iran's influence in the Middle East, the Gulf, Lebanon, Gaza; its agreements with Syria; its presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia; and its role in Iraq. Saudi Arabia is probably the Gulf country most worried about Tehran, although Riyadh has expressed little publicly so far on the subject. The Iranian nuclear program also casts a shadow over Egypt and Turkey. Egypt is preoccupied by Tehran extending its sphere of infl uence with the bomb and afraid to be drawn into a conflict between Iran and some of the smaller Gulf states. Turkey, for all its ambiguous policy concerning Tehran, will never accept a hegemonic Iran that throws its weight around thanks to nuclear weaponry. Nor will it accept a Middle East with only two nuclear powers: Israel and Iran. Concerning Iraq, an unpredicted consequence of the war is Tehran's growing influence there. At a time when his own citizens are fighting inflation, Ahmadinejad announced a billion-dollar reconstruction loan during his state visit to Iraq in March 2008. He also said foreign forces should leave Iraq immediately, hoping to still increase its influence when this will eventually be done. In Afghanistan, Iran has conflicting interests: ensuring stability of a neighboring country and destabilizing U.S. troops, which explains Iran's contradictory policy of helping declared enemies (the Taliban and Al Qaeda) up to a certain point. Limiting Iran's ability to interfere in such a sensitive zone should be a major goal of any sound policy. This means preventing the acquisition of the most destructive weapon available.
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Third, we must fully realize what it would mean to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran. An Iranian bomb would strengthen the more radical elements in Iran who would be buoyed by nuclear success; it would extend Iran's sphere of influence; it would expose the weakness of its neighbors; and it could result in a Middle East with a number of nuclear actors that would make it utterly unpredictable and even unmanageable. A nuclear Iran would jeopardize the fragile hopes of any virtuous circle in the region, and possibly the entire nonproliferation regime, which would not be able to withstand an assault of this magnitude in the most strategically sensitive part of the world. Tehran may not necessarily use the bomb to destroy Israel, as it claims, but who wants to test that hypothesis in the real world? And even if such is the case, an Iranian bomb would by its own existence be an unacceptable coercion on neighbors and on powers present in the region. In a situation in which Iran does not even acknowledge its military program, no one can describe the command and control or safety mechanisms that Tehran has in mind. This will greatly increase the fear that something might go wrong inadvertently or, in a time of crisis, possible misunderstandings—the very situation nuclear experts dread. Realism would therefore counsel to ask the following questions: What could be expected from Tehran with the bomb, taking into account what it already does without it? And are the risks tolerable? President-elect Barack Obama answered the last question with a clear "no."
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Sanctions. UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1803 contains more sanctions that hurt the Iranian regime, but measures adopted so far are unlikely to produce significant divisions or even discussions within the Iranian leadership. Another UNSC resolution that is more substantial on refined products could produce results. Is it realistic? No, particularly after the crisis in Georgia. Concerning China, it is doubtful that Beijing would oppose a proposal already agreed by Moscow. And Beijing may also be willing to embrace more responsibility for upholding nonproliferation norms. But an agreement on refined products would be the most difficult to achieve (just below the impossible ban on energy exports), because Beijing is Iran's number one trade partner, particularly interested in energy: Sinopec, China's largest oil refiner, has concluded a multimillion- dollar deal in addition to the "deal of the century" for natural gas from Iran's North Pars gas field. In sum, sanctions are still worth trying, even on an essentially European/U.S. front, particularly as Iranian authorities face internal pressure, but without too many illusions concerning Russian and Chinese contributions.
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Press for political change in Iran. This is an excellent idea that lacks concrete content and strategy. It sounds nice to recommend a policy slowly compelling the leadership "to transcend the ideological gaps that have alienated it from large sections of its population." The problem is simply how to achieve this result. Experienced Iranians recognize that they frequently do not understand themselves how the political power works in their own country. So how could we? As a matter of fact, external pressure on Iran has been very limited. For instance, in 2004 and 2005, the policy vis-à-vis Iran was one of great caution, in order not to allow the conservatives to use external pressure in the presidential electoral campaign. And the result was … Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an ultraconservative. Th is should not prevent efforts to address Iranian civil society, which remains the first victim of the repressive and ineffective policy conducted by Tehran: if Iran suffers while its neighbors benefit from peaceful nuclear cooperation, the regime should be increasingly hard-pressed to explain why. Three decades after the Islamic revolution, economic challenges may lead Iran to seek practical solutions, abandon ideology, and meet the most important expectations of its population: containing inflation and developing employment. But can these goals be attained before the bomb is built? Who would be ready to bet on that?
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The military option. If the scenario of military strikes is excluded, it will not necessarily mean than international pressure will stop, as the follow-up of the 2007 U.S. NIE has shown. UNSC Resolution 1803 was still adopted in March 2008, with more sanctions and only one abstention (Indonesia). But with this important option off the table, Iran will feel free to continue defying the international community in some way, shape, or form, particularly if eff ective sanctions are not adopted (see the earlier point on refined products). Iran's nuclear military program will go on. The world may well have to decide—and the West in particular, its reluctance notwithstanding—whether it prefers a nuclear-armed Iran or a military operation. It is doubtful that the American people will allow another military operation at a time when so much is going wrong in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. That said, if a military action means trouble for months or even years, an Iranian bomb would certainly mean trouble for decades. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to think twice before the choice is made. If there is one region where deterrence should not be tested, it is the Middle East. And Iran has to worry as well, because if it goes nuclear, not only conventional but also nuclear military buildups will take place in the region, essentially as a counter-reaction to its provocative policy.