Iran's Nuclear Program: America's Policy Options
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Bombing Iran would almost certainly be counterproductive for the goal of regime change. Iranians, like most other people, could be expected to 'rally around the flag' if their country comes under attack. Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian liberal critic of the clerical regime, likely expressed the views of most of her fellow citizens when she warned Washington not to attack Iran: 'We will defend our country till the last drop of blood.' If that is the attitude of a pro- Western liberal Iranian, one can only imagine what the attitude would be of Iranians less hostile to the current government.
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Iran is an especially unpromising candidate for a successful campaign of economic coercion. Even if the United States can induce the major EU powers, Russia, China, Japan, and India to impose serious sanctions against Iran, the defection of one or more of those countries is very likely. All of them have important investments in Iran. Japan, for example, is extremely worried that if it goes along with a sanctions regime, China will swoop in and displace Tokyo's investments in Iran's oil industry. Some smaller countries may also defect from any sanctions regime. Australia, for example, has already voiced reservations about its participation.
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The notion that populations will rise up against their government and make common cause with the country that is bombing them and killing their loved ones is based on highly dubious logic. Moreover, the historical record lends little support to the thesis. Despite massive bombing of Germany and Japan in World War II, the fascist regimes remained in power to the bitter end in both cases. U.S. bombing of North Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s did not dislodge Ho Chi Minh or his successors from power. NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999 actually caused Slobodan Milosevic's popularity to increase for a time. It was not until much later, and the election that drove him from power was based on largely domestic issues that the democratic opposition was able to get rid of him.
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Some Iranian dissidents seem to understand that point and are very nervous about a U.S. political embrace. Iranian human rights activist Emad Baghi complained, 'We are under pressure from both the hardliners in the judiciary and that stupid George Bush.' Vahid Pourostad, editor of the pro-reform National Trust newspaper, noted that whenever the United States 'supported an idea publicly, the public has done the opposite.' Popular resentment against a heavy-handed U.S. role is especially likely in Iran. A good many Iranians remember that the United States interfered once before in their country's internal affairs, and the outcome was not a happy one. It was a coup orchestrated by the CIA in 1953 that ousted a democratic government and restored the autocratic shah to power. His corrupt and repressive rule for the next quarter century paved the way for the Islamic fundamentalist revolution. Any hint of U.S. meddling today would probably cause Iranian moderates to make common cause with the ruling religious elite.
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Whether additional proliferation would reach epidemic proportions and create the nightmare scenarios forecast by some analysts is uncertain. It is important to recall that pundits and even international relations experts have tended to overestimate both the probability and the extent of proliferation in the past. The conventional wisdom in the 1960s was that there would be as many as two dozen nuclear-weapons powers within a generation. Similar predictions were made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Moreover, it is not an established fact that nuclear weapons in the hands of a larger number of nations would necessarily be a bad development. Indeed, a few respected international relations scholars have argued that nuclear proliferation might be stabilizing rather than destabilizing. Given its volatile political makeup, though, the Middle East is probably not the best region to test that thesis.
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Nevertheless, one can overstate both the probability and the effectiveness of blackmail. It is again useful to recall that analysts expressed similar fears about China when it acquired nuclear weapons, yet Beijing's behavior for the most part did not validate those fears. Although China did attack Vietnam in 1979, the PRC's conduct since the late 1960s has generally been less, rather than more, bellicose than it was when China lacked a nuclear capability. That episode illustrates the larger point that nuclear weapons are much more useful as a deterrent against possible adversaries than they are as a mechanism for intimidating those adversaries, much less for war-fighting purposes. There are indications over the past several years that the two newest nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, have reached that conclusion. As in the case of China after the 1960s, New Delhi and Islamabad appear to have become more cautious and restrained since they built nuclear arsenals. One cannot guarantee that Tehran would follow that pattern, but by the same token it is unwarranted to assume that the Iranian regime would engage in rampant blackmail.
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In any case, the obnoxious nature of the Iranian regime (or other rogue regimes) does not negate the underlying realities of deterrence. The United States has an enormous nuclear arsenal and the delivery systems to launch retaliatory strikes with pinpoint accuracy. Any government in Tehran, whether headed by Ahmadinejad or some other figure, would know that an attack on America would be a regime-extinguishing event. Such an attack would be suicide, both politically and literally. And while nonstate actors that embrace terrorism may sometimes be suicidal, political leaders seldom are. We have little credible evidence that the Iranian leadership is an exception to that rule. Most people who reject a strategy of acceptance and deterrence tacitly acknowledge the improbability that Iran would launch a suicidal attack on the American homeland. Instead, a majority of the objections focus on other fears about Iranian misconduct. Those objections are based on several assumptions of varying plausibility.
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Aggressive democracy promotion is a strategy that is likely to backfire in another way. There is little doubt that a growing number of Iranians (especially young Iranians) are fed up with the repressive rule of the mullahs and want a more open society. But outspoken U.S. endorsements of their resistance campaign could be the kiss of death. U.S. support gives the religious hierarchy the perfect pretext to portray even cautious advocates of political reform as traitors and American stooges.
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Finally, there is the probable impact on the rest of the Muslim world. If the United States attacks yet another Muslim country (which would make three in the last five years), most Muslims from Morocco to Malaysia will believe that Washington is out to destroy their culture and religion. America's troubles with the Islamic world do not yet constitute a war of civilizations, but attacking Iran could well produce that result. The military option is one that no rational U.S. policymaker should embrace.
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Would Iran Pass Along Nuclear Weapons to Terrorist Groups? This concern has slightly greater plausibility. Tehran does have a cozy relationship with a number of terrorist organizations in the Middle East, most notably Hezbollah. The pervasive assumption among American hawks is that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, sooner or later it will pass one along to a terrorist ally. But how likely is it that Iran would make such a transfer? At the very least, it would be an incredibly high-risk strategy. Even the most fanatical mullahs in Tehran realize that the United States would attack the probable supplier of such a weapon and Iran would be at the top of Washington's list of suspects. It is significant that Iran has possessed chemical weapons for decades, yet there is no indication that it has passed on any of those weapons to Hezbollah or to Palestinian groups that Tehran supports politically. Why should one assume that the mullahs would be more reckless with nuclear weapons when the prospect of devastating retaliation for an attack would be even more likely? The more logical conclusion is that Iran, like other nuclear powers, would jealously guard its arsenal.