Five Scenarios for the Iranian Crisis
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The potency of the regime-change argument declines with each day of additional trouble in Iraq. If Iraq is what happens when the U.S. forces regime change, then the U.S. should get a different strategy, in the view of most Washington observers today. Still, it is worthwhile to highlight some general problems with this approach. Peaceful regime change cannot be relied upon to produce new leaders quickly enough to turn off nuclear weapons acquisition programs. Generally, it takes countries less time to acquire the capabilities to build nuclear weapons than to reform governments and implement genuine democracy. In Iran, for example, even democrats do not foresee major political reform happening this decade. But Iran is highly likely to master the uranium enrichment process in this time if its current government is not induced to change course.
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The non-democratic governments of Russia and China also resent American democracy promotion efforts. If the U.S. wants to use UN Security Council sanctions as a means to coerce regime change, then Russia and China will resist as a matter of direct interest and to prevent the precedent for sanctions that could someday be sought against them. In this sense, the United States' grand strategy of promoting democratization around the world, through regime change if necessary, clashes with the interest in persuading Russia and China to support sanctions to alter Iran's nuclear behavior. Indeed, China long has displayed a general aversion to sanctions, which in turn have long been a tool by which the U.S. and Europe have tried to promote Western values and norms.
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Russia is particularly tempted to see cooperation in the Iran case as a lever to exert against U.S. interference in other issues of greater concern to Moscow. As the U.S. (and France and the United Kingdom) urged Moscow in October to take a tougher stance on Iran, President Putin was focused on a heightened dispute with Georgia. Georgia's leadership in turn beseeched the U.S. and Europe to stand up for democracy, human rights and other Western norms which the Georgian leadership embraces. This dispute has wider implications, as Georgia has sought eventual membership in NATO, to which the Bush Administration has been receptive. Georgia is such a high priority to Putin that it is difficult to imagine he would not see Russia's position on Iran as a way to affect Washington's position on Georgia. Yet, the Bush Administration seems not to see and bargain on the basis of such connections - not that this would be appealing: Russia's widespread and growing violation of Western norms raises the moral costs of Realpolitik bargaining with it.
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The proliferation consequences of Iranian fuel-cycle capability would not necessarily be contained by regime change. Even if the U.S. and other outside actors could speed the fall of the clerical government in Iran (highly unlikely), and a benign government respectful of human rights replaced it (unknowable), the new government could insist on retaining an indigenous fuel-cycle program. Iran's neighbors, particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, would evaluate the Iranian nation's capabilities more than a new regime's intentions. Regimes come and go, but nuclear capabilities tend to persist - this is not to deny that containing further proliferation would be easier with a less militant Iranian government.
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Eliminating non-democratic regimes can create its own great dangers. Iraq is the most recent example, and the only case where regime change was executed explicitly as a nonproliferation measure. Jack Snyder and Edward D. Mansfield have documented that governmental transitions often lead to military conflict. Toppling the government of Iran would unleash intelligence services, basij morality enforcers, Revolutionary Guards, and the violent Mujahedin-i- Khalq underground opposition into bloody conflict offering no confidence that peaceful liberal elements of Iranian society would prevail.
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A priority will be improved intelligence gathering and monitoring of Iranian activities, which can be done without alerting wider populations. This is needed to clarify when Iran is conducting or supporting aggression outside of its borders, and to identify perpetrators and relevant targets for retaliation. Retaliation would best be done covertly, as covertness simultaneously garners respect from Iran's own purveyors of violence and reduces pressures for escalation that often ensue when overt threats are made. Indeed, the U.S. and friendly regional states must place the highest priority on extending deterrence down the escalatory ladder by improving capabilities and dispositions to apply small-scale, precisely-targeted actions against Iranian agents who do the same, including not just the use of force but also financial coercion. In the political drama of neo-revolutionary Iran's bid to rally anti-American and anti-Israeli public sentiment, the United States' nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, and Army divisions are disadvantageous to the extent that they reinforce the narrative of a big, colonial bully trying to dominate less powerful Muslims. Quiet, small-scale retaliation and understated diplomacy will be more effective.
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The first step is to convince Iran's constitutional leaders that their sovereignty and security will not be threatened if they desist from supporting or conducting violence outside their borders. The Iranian regime must know that it does not need nuclear weapons or proxy war for its survival; its survival is best guaranteed by not fighting. It also must be shown that nuclear weapons would not maximize its regional influence, but, on the contrary, would bring about containment and counter-balancing. The incentive package that France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S., Russia and China have offered to negotiate contains most of what is necessary to show Iran it will live better without producing fissile materials. What it lacks is an unmistakably clear U.S. commitment to live with the constitutional government in Tehran, even as the U.S. competes with it politically and morally.
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Russia's and China's geostrategic logic can be seen as they have cooperated in developing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Both sought to reverse the United States' penetration into Central Asia after September 11, 2001. Both see themselves competing with the U.S. over influence in the periphery of Eurasia. Russia invited Iran to be an observer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and at the height of the Security Council's deliberations on the Iranian nuclear case in June 2006, Russia and China welcomed Iran's president Ahmadinejad to address the SCO's tenth anniversary meeting in Shanghai. Iraq was the last bastion of Soviet/Russian influence and major business in the Middle East. The U.S. has completely supplanted Russia from the region. Now Iran offers Russia re-entry and is a bigger, richer and better-located partner than Egypt, Syria, and Iraq was earlier. Nuclear cooperation, arms sales, and non-interference in internal affairs such as Chechnya make it worthwhile for Moscow not to antagonize Tehran. In other words, Iran can be useful, especially to Russia, in balancing U.S. power and influence in the Middle East and Central Asia.
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The former CIA officer, Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote one of the best discussions of the expected consequences of a military campaign to seriously degrade Iran's nuclear capabilities, in the April 24, 2006 issue of The Weekly Standard. Gerecht's forthright analysis concludes that "bombing the nuclear facilities once would mean we were declaring war on the clerical regime…we'd have to strike until they stopped…. All of this would probably transpire over many years, perhaps a decade or more." [p. 23]. Despite the long war that he anticipates would follow strikes on Iran's nuclear installations and assorted other military targets, Gerecht believes the risk of allowing Iran's ruling clerics to possess nuclear weapons is greater. Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, Sam Gardiner, an experienced conductor of military war games, argues in "The End of The ‘Summer of Diplomacy': Assessing U.S. Military Options on Iran," that the most probable military scenario will "be unlikely to yield any of the results that American policymakers do want, and…would be highly likely to yield results that they do not."