The failings of U.S. policy toward Iran’s nuclear program―and how to reverse them.
Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution brought to power a theocratic regime headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the dominant concern of Iran’s government has become its own survival. The Iranian leadership perceives imminent existential threats in its domestic, regional, and international environments. It follows that most of Iran’s actions and policies stem from this fundamental insecurity. Prominent among these is Iran’s nuclear program, which the regime likely sees as the sole and ultimate guarantor of its survival.
The critical weakness of Western diplomatic efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear program has been that the “carrot or stick” approach does not work if the subject neither wants the carrot nor fears the stick. Past measures have proven ineffective because they have not addressed Iran’s chief concern―the security and stability of the ruling regime. In the absence of security guarantees and as long as China and Russia oppose tougher UN sanctions, Iran simply will not see a strong incentive to scale back its nuclear ambitions.
Despite its blustery rhetoric toward the United States and Israel, Iran’s government surely recognizes that its first use of nuclear weapons would provoke catastrophic nuclear retaliation. Additionally, Iran has nothing to gain from offensive military action, as it does not seek to expand its territory nor topple any neighboring governments. Likewise, the benefits it receives through its support of Hizballah and Hamas―influence outside its borders and a retaliatory capability against attack by the U.S. or Israel―are defensive in nature. For all of these reasons, the offensive use of nuclear weapons by Iran is extremely unlikely; rather, it is their deterrent effect upon potential aggressors that makes them so valuable.
Given its focus on survival, the Iranian regime cannot be expected to agree to negotiation terms that put it in jeopardy. U.S. policy must seek to assuage Iran's security concerns even if it does not explicitly grant legitimacy to the regime. Extending such security assurances would not preclude the U.S. from supporting measures that separately seek to promote civil liberties or democratic processes in Iran. However, it must be made clear that the U.S. does not and will not support a forceful or coercive change in Iran's leadership, as suspicion of this intention will doom any dialogue on the nuclear issue.
In this regard, it must be recognized that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is unlikely to be positively swayed by the prospect of improved relations with the U.S. alone, as an anti-American stance is a critical ideological tenet of the Islamic Revolution. Therefore, U.S. policy must recognize that comprehensive engagement with Iran may not be possible right now and in any case is not required, as narrowly-focused talks are more suited to realizing the immediate goal.
Preventing Iran from attaining the capability to enrich uranium to high levels must be the centerpiece of U.S. policy, but since Iran also recognizes this, demanding that this step be a pre-condition to further talks is clearly untenable. Instead, genuinely plausible alternatives to domestic uranium enrichment must be offered, such as guaranteeing foreign sources and prices for nuclear fuel through the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the acceptance of which would be tied to lifting of sanctions. Good faith efforts to propose enrichment alternatives will place the burden of proof on Iran regarding the exclusively civilian nature of its nuclear program, putting it in a position where continued non-cooperation can only be seen as confirmation of its suspected desire to develop nuclear weapons.
This in turn will help build the wider international consensus against Iran that has thus far been missing. Until all of its most important trade relations are threatened, Iran is unlikely to compromise. Because of their extensive trade connections with Iran, Russia and China in particular have undermined past U.S. efforts but must be persuaded by Iran’s continued intransigence to back future U.S. initiatives. Similarly, the moderating influence of organizations with which Iran desires expanded trade relations, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, must be leveraged to support U.S. policy. The critical importance of building this consensus reinforces the need to offer realistic alternatives to domestic enrichment to Iran, leaving it no choice but to negotiate or risk suffering substantially stronger and more broadly supported punitive UN measures that have the potential to inflict immediate and unsustainable drag effects on its economy.
Unless confronted with the extremely unlikely threat of an imminent nuclear attack by Iran, the U.S. must avoid military options in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. Although a large section of the Iranian population seems to oppose the clerical regime, opinion polls suggest that this same group generally believes that Iran has the right to develop its nuclear program. While a Western effort to limit the program’s scope with viable alternatives may be palatable to both the government and the general population, mounting an attack on nuclear facilities risks turning public opinion against the US and aligning it with the regime. As the locations of the facilities are widespread and not completely known, such an attack could only be expected to set the program back a few months or years anyway, making it a temporary rather than a long-term solution.
The Iranian regime likely views possession of nuclear weapons as its ultimate security guarantee. As such, it is unlikely to make its greatest concession―halting uranium enrichment―unless U.S. policy convinces it that the U.S. does not seek forceful regime change. Iran must then be forced to choose between cooperation with the international community or a significant tightening and widening of the sanctions it faces, enabled by a vastly expanded international consensus against it. This requires that the U.S. offer realistic alternatives to domestic enrichment coupled with easing of current sanctions. Until the carrot is sweetened by addressing Iran’s ultimate concerns and the stick is strengthened by building wider international consensus, U.S. policy toward Iran’s nuclear program is likely to remain ineffectual.
This piece received first place in the International Affairs Review-Graduate Student Forum Fall 2011 Essay Competition.
Greg Pugliese is a master's candidate in Security Policy Studies at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. He has concentrated his studies on Iranian security and political issues.
Photo courtesy of SS&SS via Flickr.