The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Latest Developments and Next Steps
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The United States has fitfully tried to support regime change in Iran, both through rhetoric and at times by supporting an array of opposition groups with relatively limited funding. Such efforts have met with no progress. The Iranian regime is well-entrenched, and its security services have penetrated various opposition movements over the years with considerable success. The most effective sources of opposition to the Iranian regime are indigenous and largely have worked within the system without U.S. support. Even more important, the Iranian people are highly nationalistic. Though there is considerable dissatisfaction with the clerical regime, Iranians are exceptionally sensitive to perceived outside manipulation, and open U.S. backing of oppositionists could easily discredit the very forces we seek to help.Regime change attempts, however, do affect the perceptions of Iranian leaders, both pragmatists and ideologues. Although the money spent is often paltry, it reinforces a sense that the United States is bent on destroying the Islamic Republic and gives ammunition to radicals when they seek to discredit voices that favor greater cooperation with the United States.
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Most dangerously, Iran would strike back. With the possible exception of Iraq, Iran appears not to have targeted Americans directly with terrorism since the 1996 attack on Khobar Towers, though it still retains the capability to do so. Iran instead uses terrorism as a form of deterrence, "casing" U.S. Embassies and other facilities to give it a response should the United States step up pressure.6 Should the United States strike Iran militarily, Iran could retaliate against U.S. facilities around the world. In addition, the recent deployment of European peacekeepers to Lebanon, where Iran's ally Hizballah is strong, provides a venue to strike against any allies that assist the U.S. military effort.Iraq is the biggest theater for Iranian retaliation. A military strike could easily lead Iranian leaders to step up their activities in Iraq, turning parts that are relatively peaceful into a war zone comparable to the worst parts of Anbar Province. Iranian commentators speak openly of the "140,000 hostages" next door in Iraq and clearly see the U.S. presence in Iraq as a potential source of leverage.
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Although these possibilities are worrisome and are enough to make halting the Iranian nuclear program a U.S. priority, it is important to recognize what Iran is not likely do should it gain a nuclear weapon. First, it is not likely to do an unprovoked (as defined by Tehran) attack on the United States, Israel, or a regional Arab ally of the United States with a nuclear weapon. Although Iran desires to be a regional leader and to undermine U.S. influence, a nuclear strike would not directly serve its interests. In addition, the regime's behavior so far has shown that it is well aware of the devastating retaliation Iran would suffer should it launch a nuclear attack. And unlike North Korea or other murderous regimes, Iran's leaders are not willing to jeopardize the lives of millions of their citizens in such a way.
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From a U.S. point of view, Iran would be harder to coerce on two key issues: Iraq and support for terrorism. As noted above, Iran understands how potent the U.S. military can be and has avoided a direct confrontation for two decades. Though Iran remains one of the world's top supporters of terrorism, it has placed limits on its proxies as well as bolstered them. In addition, Iran has supported an array of groups in Iraq linked to violence, but it has so far refrained from unleashing its full power for subversion. Although Iran has provided training and weapons to an array of militia groups, many of which have at times attacked the United States, Iranian leaders have encouraged various Iraqi Shi'a groups to participate in U.S.-backed elections and reconstruction efforts. As Persian Gulf security expert Kenneth Pollack contends, "Although we may not necessarily like all of the same people in Iraq, on balance, Iran has so far been more helpful in advancing the causes of stability and democracy in Iraq than it has been harmful."1A nuclear Iran may continue with this mid-level support for terrorists or other anti-U.S. forces, but it might also decide to step up its backing of terrorists and anti-U.S. groups in Iraq, confident that the United States would be afraid to retaliate because of Iran's nuclear program.
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Extending Iran's regional influence. A nuclear weapon also gives Iran a deterrent capacity against potential regional foes such as a resurgent Iraq or even Pakistan, where anti-Shi'a Muslim domestic violence is strong. But more important than this deterrent is the ability to use a nuclear weapon to bolster Iran's overall influence in the region. Iran would also play up its program as a way of defending the Muslim world against Israel, though this would be rhetorical commitment only.
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Deterring the United States. Many Iranian leaders have long believed that the United States is determined to destroy the Islamic Republic. Iran's leadership is hostile toward the United States, and if anything the anti-U.S. camp has gotten stronger in recent years. Although the combative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad receives most the attention due to his incendiary rhetoric, other senior Iranians, most importantly Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei but also a host of emerging leaders, also see the United States as a hostile and hegemonic power and believe Iran should join, if not lead, the camp opposed to Washington. Over 25 years of U.S. efforts to isolate and weaken Iran, along with American rhetoric (and weak programs) to promote "regime change" have created considerable paranoia in Iran about U.S. objectives. The presence of U.S. troops along the Persian Gulf littoral has been the focus of Iran's military since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Husayn's regime and subsequent occupation of Iraq, and the presence of smaller numbers of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and at times Pakistan has also created a sense of threat in Iran, which is reinforced by rhetoric about the "axis of evil" and preventive war. Tehran's conventional forces are no match for those of the United States, and in general Iran has displayed a healthy respect for American military power. Not surprisingly, Iran's leaders see a nuclear weapon as the ultimate guarantee of the regime's security.
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Gaining political capital at home. As the crisis over the nuclear program has escalated in recent years, the dispute has become a political issue at home. Supporters of the nuclear program have turned it into a debate over Iran's pride and status, claiming that the world seeks to subjugate Iran and branding opponents as lackeys of the West. The regime's recent decision to issue Iranian current with a nuclear symbol on it is one example of how it milks the nuclear issue to bolster its domestic standing. Backing down on the nuclear issue thus would incur political costs to Iranian politicians, who would be vulnerable to charges of "selling out" Iran's security and dignity.When assessing domestic political views on the nuclear program, it is important to distinguish between a nuclear power program and a nuclear weapons program. Although the regime's duplicity toward the IAEA and acute sense of strategic vulnerability strongly suggest that it intends to develop nuclear weapons, many Iranians would derive pride from a successful nuclear power program, seeing that as a sign of their technical accomplishments as a people. It is possible that the Iranian public would be satisfied with a continued nuclear power program even if there were guarantees embedded in it to ensure that it was not converted into a nuclear weapons program.