Bringing Iran to the Bargaining Table
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Persian pride appears to be a motivation in Iran's pursuit of nuclear enrichment capability, if not actual nuclear weapons. Acquiring nuclear arms would give Iran a status that only a few other nations possess. It would immediately catapult Iran into the "major leagues" of world politics. It would likely force other states to pay more attention to Iran's aspirations and wishes. Here the recent model that seems to stand out in the minds of many Iranians is India. Its development of nuclear weapons-and their acceptance by the international community-has been a critical element in New Delhi's elevation to one of the great powers of the world, a power whose views should be considered on any matter of importance. Since this is the position to which many Iranians seem to aspire, matching India in the nuclear realm also appears to be a self-evident necessity for Iran.
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In the early 1990s, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan went even further, voluntarily surrendering the nuclear arsenals they had inherited from the Soviet Union. Although many Western academic strategists believed that they were insane to do so, all three recognized that the security benefits from possessing nuclear weapons were out- weighed by the diplomatic and economic benefits of giving them up. Strong economies and good relations with the rest of the world were of far greater importance to them. Finally, there is the case of Libya, long one of the Middle East's worst rogue states. In December 2003 it agreed to terminate its nuclear program after 10 years of un sanctions convinced Muammar Qadhafi that his pursuit of the bomb was not worth the devastation of Libya's economy and international relationships. These examples demonstrate that it is entirely possible for the international community to dissuade states from trying to acquire nuclear weapons and even persuade them to give them up, even when those states have compelling strategic rationales for possessing the weapons. In every case, the key has been to create a powerful set of incentives and disincentives geared to the priorities of the state in question.
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Another comparison is useful to illustrate this point. North Korea's calculus regarding nuclear weapons was clearly different from Iran's. For Pyongyang, its nuclear weapons program was its highest priority, and it was willing to tolerate hardships that few other countries (including even Iran) would be willing to. Ultimately, North Korea accepted the devastation of its economy, the impoverishment of its citizenry, and the starvation deaths of 3 million of its people to hold onto its nuclear weapons program. If the same could be said about Iran then it probably would be impossible to convince Tehran to give up its nuclear program. However, there is no Iranian or Iran expert who believes that this is the case. There is absolutely no evidence that Tehran is willing to tolerate the extremes of sacrifice that North Korea did. Instead, the evidence suggests that Iran is more like Libya: difficult, but hardly impossible to convince.
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The key is for the United States and its allies to compel the Iranians to choose between their nuclear program and their highest priority-their economic well-being. How? Briefly, this would involve a multilateral sanctions regime that would gradually shut down Western investment in Iran, particularly its gas and oil sectors, in response to continued Iranian recalcitrance. Even with oil prices above $60 per barrel, Iran is desperate for Western investment capital because corruption is sucking the oil revenues out of the system, thus reducing their impact on the overall economy. Despite the claims of some that Russia and China could make up for any loss of capital from Europe and Japan, their economies are still roughly a decade away from being in a position to do so.
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From an Iranian perspective, possession of nuclear weapons makes sense for purely defensive purposes. While nuclear weapons cannot solve all of Iran's security problems, they can solve some, and in so doing might make dealing with the rest much easier. At the most extreme, Iran is unlikely to be able to deter a determined American military operation without a nuclear arsenal. This lesson has no doubt been driven home to the Iranians by the divergent experiences of Iraq and North Korea, the two other members of President George W. Bush's "axis of evil." North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, and so the United States has not attacked it and is being forced to engage with Pyongyang. Saddam Hussein's Iraq did not possess nuclear weapons-but was believed to be trying to acquire them-and so the United States was willing to invade and overturn the Baathist regime. It is hard to imagine that the leadership in Tehran did not see this as a very simple set of reinforcing conclusions: if you have nuclear weapons, the United States will not dare use force against you, but if you do not, you are vulnerable.
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The Iranians clearly have a range of powerful motivations, strategic, ideological, and psychological, for desiring an arsenal of nuclear weapons-or at least the capability to manufacture such weapons in short order. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to confuse motivations with a universal and indomitable determination to achieve this goal. The history of the past 60 years demonstrates that other states with equal or greater strategic need, ideological justification, or psychological desire for nuclear weapons ultimately chose not to pursue them or to give up their pursuit midstream. In the 1960s it was considered a foregone conclusion that Egypt would develop a nuclear weapon. Indeed, that nation's strategic and psychological incentives were even more compelling than Iran's are today. Egypt was locked in a conflict with a nuclear-armed Israel that resulted in four mostly disastrous wars (for Egypt) in 25 years, and Cairo aspired to be the "leader of the Arab world." Yet Egypt shut down its nuclear weapons program entirely of its own volition because the leadership in Cairo concluded that it had higher priorities that the pursuit of nuclear weapons was undermining. Italy, Australia, Sweden, Japan, and South Korea considered developing nuclear weapons at various times, and the Italians and Australians actu- ally made considerable progress toward that goal. However, all of them decided that nuclear arms would be counterproductive in relation to other, higher priorities, and that they could find ways to deal with their security problems (including even South Korea) through other means.