April 19, 2010

What to do about Iran

Even President Obama doesn’t seem all that confident that more sanctions will cause Iran to abandon its nuclear program. As he told George Stephanopoulos in a recent interview, there’s no guarantee that sanctions are “automatically going to change Iranian behavior…I mean, the history of the Iranian regime, like the North Korean regime is that…you apply international pressure on these countries, sometimes they choose to change behavior, sometimes they don’t.”[1]

Why then does Obama continue pushing for sanctions? More than likely, it all comes down to politics. Because pushing for sanctions makes Obama appear tough, not tough enough to appease the most militant conservatives, but tough enough to prevent many voters from thinking him a wimp. And God forbid voters think our president a wimp.

So it looks like Obama will continue down this path and impose another set of sanctions on Iran. If the past is any indicator of the future, more sanctions won’t halt the regime’s uranium enrichment program. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for those living in the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter. For even if Iran isn’t currently developing nuclear weapons, the more adept it becomes at enriching uranium, the greater the possibility that it will one day produce such weapons.

So what do I suggest? What do I think the president should do to stop Iran from furthering its nuclear program?

First, I think he needs to examine Iran’s motives. Assuming that it does in fact want nuclear weapons (and I think the evidence suggests that, at the very least, it wants to achieve a nuclear breakout capability), Iran clearly has no intention of using such weapons against Israel.[2] For Iran’s leaders undoubtedly know that undertaking such an action would result in their own country’s annihilation, and there’s no reason to believe that these men have a death wish.[3] As Fareed Zakaria writes, the crazy mullah hypothesis “isn’t and never was an accurate description of Iran’s canny (and ruthlessly pragmatic) clerical elite.”[4]

So why then would Iran want nuclear weapons or at least a breakout capability? As George Perkovich has argued, the most likely answer is that the nation’s leaders “intuit that the bomb will keep all outside powers, including Israel and the U.S., from thinking they can dictate to Iran or invade it. Nuclear weapons capability also will demonstrate the brilliance and technical prowess of the great Persian civilization. In particular, Shia Iranians may feel that the bomb would demonstrate and reinsure their general superiority over their mostly Sunni Arab rivals.”[5] Ray Takeyh has reached a similar conclusion and writes that America’s dealings with North Korea have probably helped convince Iran “that a presumed nuclear capability may not only avert a preemptive American strike but generate its own set of economic rewards and future security guarantees.”[6]

In other words, Iran’s leaders aren’t fundamentally different than other world leaders. As men guided by self-interest, they most likely want nuclear weapons in order to preserve their own existence and prestige. Because of this, it seems clear that the best way to get Iran to abandon its nuclear program, or at least to implement the IAEA’s Additional Protocols,[7] is to adopt what Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett refer to as the “grand bargain” approach. Such an approach would require the US to abandon its current sanctions regime and instead seek rapprochement with Iran. The Leveretts note, “This was the model that the Nixon administration applied to relations with China during the early 1970s. President Nixon and his advisers recognized and forthrightly acknowledged that a quarter century of U.S. efforts to isolate, weaken, and press China had not served America’s strategic interests, in Asia or globally. In an act of extraordinary statesmanship, Nixon redefined America’s China policy so that it would serve those interests.”[8]

Such a grand bargain would entail granting Iran security guarantees, promises that neither we nor Israel would invade the nation or work to overthrow its regime. It would also involve ending our current sanctions against the country, restoring normal diplomatic relations, and seeking to foster trade and other forms of peaceful interaction between citizens of the two nations. In return, Iran would be asked to abandon its nuclear program or at least become more transparent and implement the IAEA’s Additional Protocols. Iran would also agree to undertake such additional actions as ending its support for such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Two main arguments have been given against the idea of such a rapprochement. First, some have claimed that any type of US overture to the ruling regime would betray Iran’s democracy-minded reformists. In response to this, it should be pointed out that there’s no evidence to suggest that current US policy is helping the reformists. Mir Hossein Mousavi and other reformist leaders have strongly voiced their opposition to American sanctions. According to Mousavi, additional sanctions “would not affect the government but would impose many hardships upon the people, who suffer enough as a result of the calamity of their insane rulers.”[9]

Far from helping the reform movement, James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation argues that more sanctions could actually help to “rally domestic support” for the existing regime.[10] Indeed, it seems clear that three decades of American-led sanctions have only reinforced the regime’s characterization of the United States as an evil imperialist power and inflamed anti-American sentiment. According to a June 2009 poll, only 29% of Iranians hold a favorable view of the United States,[11] and according to a February 2010 poll, a full 87% of Iranians are satisfied with their current “system of government.”[12]

The second argument that has been given against those favoring a grand bargain approach is that such thinking is naïve, that Iran is run by a bunch of uncompromising mullahs who would rather die than make peace with the “Great Satan.” But past events have shown that this is clearly not the case. As detailed in the 2009 BBC documentary Iran and the West, between 2001 and 2003, Tehran made three different attempts to improve relations with the United States, only to be rebuffed each time.[13]

The first attempt occurred shortly after 9/11 when a member of Iran’s UN delegation sent a message to the US government. According to Hillary Mann Leverett, who at the time served as head of the State Department’s Iran Section, “He [the Iranian diplomat] said that Iran was prepared to work unconditionally with the United States in the war on terror, that if they could work with us on this issue it had the potential to fundamentally transform US-Iranian relations.” The State Department favored starting up a dialogue with Iran, but according to Richard Haass, who headed policy planning for the State Department, “We couldn’t get support from the NSC, from the Pentagon, from the Vice President’s office. And in every case we ran up against this belief in regime change.” A few months later, President Bush further damaged US-Iranian relations by delivering his famous “axis of evil” speech.

But Iran wasn’t ready to give up. As the US prepared to invade Iraq, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami offered to “provide America with intelligence and advice to help get rid of Saddam Hussein.” British Foreign Minister Secretary Jack Straw conveyed the offer to the US. Again, the Bush administration said it wasn’t interested. After the invasion, the Iranians sent another message to the US, this one through a Swiss diplomat. This time, Iran proposed a roadmap for the normalization of relations between the two countries and indicated that all issues were on the table. After reading the memo, Leverett believed it was “incredibly significant and groundbreaking” and felt the US needed to “call them on it” and sit down and talk. Yet the Bush administration not only refused to talk to the Iranians but even reprimanded the Swiss diplomat for conveying the message.[14]

Of course, none of this guarantees that a US attempt at reconciliation would immediately be accepted. The BBC documentary also describes a time in 2006 when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejected an overture by Condoleeza Rice. But the above events, as well as more recent statements made by Ahmadinejad,[15] show that there are at least good reasons for believing that such an approach has a good chance of eventually succeeding. It certainly has a better chance than Obama’s current dead-end strategy of sanctions and isolation.

[1] “Transcript: George Stephanopoulos Interviews President Obama,” Good Morning America (9 April 2010).

[2] Juan Cole, “Does Iran really want the bomb?Salon.com (7 October 2009).

[3] See “Does Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Want to Nuke Israel?” (15 December 2009).

[4] Fareed Zakaria, “Why Iran’s dictators can be deterred,” Washington Post (22 February 2010).

[5] George Perkovich, Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Challenge, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (28 April 2003), p. 4.

[6] Ray Takeyh, “Iran’s Nuclear Calculations,” World Policy Journal (Summer 2003, vol. 20, issue 2), p. 23.

[7] Theodore Hirsch, “The IAEA Additional Protocol: What It Is and Why It Matters,” The Nonproliferation Review (Fall-Winter 2004).

[8] Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, “The Grand Bargain,” Washington Monthly (August/September/October 2008).

[9] Thomas Erdbrink, “Iranian Opposition Warns Against Stricter Sanctions,” Washington Post (1 October 2009).

[10] James Dobbins, Iran Sanctions: Options, Opportunities, and Consequences (RAND Corporation: Santa Monica, CA, 2009), p. 2.

[11] “Poll: Obama Not Helping U.S. Image In Iran,” Associated Press (8 June 2009).

[12] “Analysis of Multiple Polls Finds Little Evidence Iranian Public Sees Government as Illegitimate,” WorldPublicOpinion.org (3 February 2010).

[13] Iran and the West: Episode 3, Nuclear Confrontation, produced by Norma Percy, distributed by BBC, originally aired 21 February 2009. The documentary can be viewed on YouTube.

[14] Andrew Moravcsik, “Déjà Vu All Over Again,” Newsweek (15 May 2006).

[15] For example, shortly after Iran and the West began nuclear negotiations in October 2009, Ahmadinejad stated, “I think these negotiations were a step forward and I hope we proceed with the same trend so we will have constructive cooperation to resolve all outstanding global issues” and “In these negotiations we witnessed better behaviour than in the past from some countries and we noticed that the logic of respect and justice is being established gradually. These talks are good basis for continuation of the negotiations.” “Iran’s Ahmadinejad calls Geneva talks a ‘step forward’,” Channel News Asia (7 October 2009). Also see my post, “Has Obama really ‘bent over backwards’ for Iran?” (17 February 2010).


Don Emmerich said...

In his blog today, Stephen Walt reaches the same conclusion:

"I'm still puzzled as to why the Obama administration hasn't tried the one strategy that might actually get somewhere: take the threat of force off the table, tell Tehran that we are willing to talk seriously about the issues that bother them (as well as the items that bother us), and try to cut a deal whereby Iran ratifies and implements the NPT Additional Protocol and is then permitted to enrich uranium for legitimate purposes (but not to weapons-grade levels). It might not work, of course, but neither will our present course of action or the 'last resort' that Mullen referred to last weekend."


Don Emmerich said...

My one disagreement with Walt involves Iran's nuclear program. I think we ought to strive to get Iran -- and all other nations, our own nation included -- to completely abandon its nuclear program.