Pathway to Coexistence: A New U.S. Policy toward Iran
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On the surface, Iran seems to be a good candidate for revolutionaryagitation, thanks to its disproportionately young population; restiveethnic minorities; an inefficient, distorted economy; and a regime miredin an obsolescent ideology, riven by factional feuds, and reliant onrepression. But the Iranian regime retains enormous capacity for controlover society and appears to be firmly entrenched in power for theforeseeable future. Despite long-term and widespread publicdissatisfaction, the persistence of the Islamic Republic over threedecades of considerable internal and external pressures should leave fewillusions about its staying power. The Islamic Republic is unpopular athome, but revolutionary change remains unlikely.
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Moreover, even if conditions within Iran were ripe for a democratic movement, any external promotion of it would prove counterproductive. The Islamic Republic suffers from a "conspiratorial interpretation of politics" that "permeates society, the mainstream as much as the fringe, and cuts through all sectors of the political spectrum." Memories of the American-backed 1953 coup that unseated Iran's democratically elected prime minister have fostered an obsessive resentment of U.S. policy and a conviction, which manifests itself even within Iran's widely pro-American population, that Washington was the root of their country's problems. For this reason, American involvement is far more likely to impair rather than advance Iran's democratic potential.
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Whatever limited benefits would accrue to the United States by delaying Iran's capacity to cross the nuclear threshold for a handful of years would be offset by a wide range of negative consequences. A strike would galvanize Iran's nationalistic population and consolidate public support for an unpopular government and its nuclear ambitions. The regime's retaliatory reach, by both conventional and unconventional attacks, would be felt throughout the region, particularly by American allies such as Israel. The aftermath would almost surely doom any prospects for revitalizing the Arab-Israeli peace process or wresting a stable outcome from Iraq. The sole beneficiaries from a military conflict between Washington and Tehran would be Iranian hard-liners and the forces of radical anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world. For this reason, many of America's closest regional partners have long viewed the consequences of an attack on Iran as more threatening than the alternative of a nuclear Iran. While they press Washington for more robust action against Iran, Persian Gulf leaders have also carefully cultivated relationships with Tehran and have consistently advocated publicly for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear dispute. Absent a more immediate Iranian provocation, there seems little evidence that Gulf states such as Qatar would readily provide the basing and support needed to undertake a sustained military campaign against Iran. Each of these caveats about the utility of military force in addressing Iran's nuclear ambitions would apply even more forcefully to the frequently discussed proposition of an Israeli strike on Iran.
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In the past year, Iran's nuclear infractions have allowed the Bush administration to score a number of procedural triumphs, as the UN Security Council has censured Tehran and urged suspension of its nuclear program. However, such symbolic successes do not imply an inclination among the great powers to impose strenuous sanctions on Iran. This is not a product of French pusillanimity or Russian cravenness, but because the other leading powers do not share Washington's threat assessment and its sense of urgency. The conventional wisdom that Moscow and Beijing can be bullied, bribed, or cajoled into imposing strenuous sanctions on Iran disregards the manifestly clear reality that their posture toward Tehran is motivated not by greed or the inadequacies of the current U.S. administration, but by a broader strategic calculus about the immediacy of the Iranian threat and the relative utility of undermining American preeminence.