All Writings
October 10, 2004

Defusing Iran’s “Nuclear Weapons”

For the United States to restrain Iran from pursuing a nuclear program will require a multi-pronged approach that can, over time, diminish Iran's strategic ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons or neutralize such weapons should it, nevertheless, acquire them. The continuation of Bush administration's coercive diplomatic approach to pressure Tehran to abandon its nuclear program without providing Iranians with important benefits will not work. In the wake of Saddam Hussein's fall, Iran is trying to exploit the changing geopolitical environment and is determined not only to protect its own security (via nuclear deterrence) but establish itself as the regional hegemon with which the United States and other powers must reckon.

Although Iranian officials deny having any intention of pursuing a nuclear weapons' program, the IAEA is not satisfied that Iran's enrichment program is only for peaceful use because once a country fully masters the technology it can easily be diverted toward military use. For Iran, the lure for acquiring such weapons, however, is not necessarily motivated by the desire to attack Israel or any other enemy. Tehran fully understands the dangers of attacking or even threatening Israel with a nuclear weapon, knowing the result would be massive retaliation with untold consequences. But from Iran's perspective, nuclear weapons could achieve a number of critical national objectives consistent with its history and strategic importance. As a nuclear power, Iran's prestige would soar inside and outside the region, it could intimidate other nations in the region–including Saudi Arabia,–negotiate with the West from a position of strength, enhance its influence with Israel's staunch enemies, like Hezbollah and Hamas, deter any potential attack by the United States, and affect events in Iraq, especially in the predominantly Shiite areas in the south. Finally, with its long history (Iran sees itself as the center of the universe), enormous land mass (Iran is larger than the entire Arabian peninsula), vast oil reserves, the largest Shiite population, and with nuclear weapons, Iran could establish itself as the uncontested regional power. This would in turn raise temperatures throughout the Middle East–forcing Israel to reconsider its strategic options for survival and Saudi Arabia and Egypt to feel the pressure to develop their own nuclear weapons. In short, there could be an arms race in the region with the potential of spinning out of control.

The war in Iraq and the occupation have demonstrated that toppling Saddam Hussein without a strategy that took Iran into account was a serious blunder and played to Iran's advantage. For one thing, it has limited the options the United States has to deal with Iran's nuclear design. The continuing insurgency in Iraq and the turmoil in the Middle East have made the threat of force against Iran to dissuade it to dismantle its nuclear program the least viable option and Tehran knows this. The United States cannot wage another war in the current environment because such a war is likely to spread to other nations, including Israel, and set the entire Middle East on fire. Instituting a set of new international sanctions against Iran without first exhausting a more peaceful option is also impossible, given the post-Iraqi realities. And, providing support to Iranian dissidents so that they can topple the government stands even a slimmer chance of success. That said, coercive diplomacy may still be useful, but only if the United States pursues both an intermediate- and long-term strategy to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear program or to neutralize its nuclear weapons should Tehran succeed in acquiring them. To be able to persuade Iran of the clear benefits it would gain by forsaking its nuclear program, the next administration needs to fully consider Iran's long history, culture, religion, and view of itself. Failing to understand these, as the current administration has, will doom any effort to forestall Iran's nuclear ambitions. In this context, the next administration must understand that for Iran, becoming a nuclear power is a matter of national pride as much as of national security. Working within this context, the next administration must consider the following steps:

First, the next president, whether it's Bush or Kerry, should propose an open-ended dialogue in which Iran and the United States discuss all existing grievances between them. Bush, because of legacy and Kerry, because he is free of any constraints arising from past events, can take the initiative without being accused of appeasement. In any event, the United States, as the only superpower, can hardly be seen as an appeaser. Iran's grievances against the United States go back to 1953, to the toppling of the Musadeq government, presumably by a covert CIA plot, the several billion dollars the United States still owed Iran for jet fighters bought by the late Shah of Iran but never delivered to the Islamic regime that succeeded him, and the belief that the United States is bent on regime change in Iran to get rid of the clergy. In turn, U.S. grievances against Iran began when Iranians took American diplomats in Teheran hostage in 1979. Since then successive U.S. governments have accused Iran of sponsoring terrorism inside and outside the region, undermining of the Arab-Israeli peace process, attempting to subvert Arab regimes friendly to the United States, fomenting violent resistance to the American forces in Iraq, and illegally pursuing nuclear weapons. To be sure, the ongoing between the two nations has created over the years a serious psychological barrier, making it impossible for either side to try to improve relations without appearing to lose face. Any future approach if it is to be successful must be based on the awareness that Iran is in need of modernization and economic development and in fact knows that it cannot achieve either without the West. Similarly, a new approach also must recognize that Iran, a proud and ancient culture, does not want to be or feel subservient or humiliated in order to gain American or European support. The opportunity for the next administration to begin a new chapter with Iran is wide open but only if the United States makes a sincere and nuanced effort will it be able to move Iran to give up nuclear weapons for modernization and economic development. The objective should be to settle peacefully all discords that stand in the way of the normalization of relations between the two countries. If, such a good-faith effort is made and Iran fails to engage the United States and the Europeans earnest, America can then turn to the United Nation Security Council for action and receive the multilateral support needed to take enforceable coercive measures to restrain Iran.

Second, as the next administration seeks a new dialogue, it must also send a clear signal that the United States will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. That is, the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf must remain strong, for this will be a deterrent to any move by Iran to undermine or threaten its neighbors or Israel. Although the American forces in the region are unlikely to be reduced any time soon, a renewed commitment by the next administration to the security of U.S. allies in the Middle East, especially Israel, will have an important effect on the Iranian clergy's strategic calculations.

Third, the next administration must strive toward eliminating Iran's influence on Hezbollah in Lebanon by removing Syria as Iran's strategic partner in its fight against Israel. The resumption of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations over the disposition of the Golan Heights should begin therefore without any delay. The Middle East will know no peace without a resolution to the Israeli-Syrian conflict, and only with its resolution will Hezbollah be completely marginalized. I was told repeatedly by top Syrian officials that the moment Israel and Syria reach an accord over the Golan, peace with Lebanon will follow immediately and Hezbollah will be forced to lay down its arms. Moreover, Iran will be completely deleted from the Israeli-Syrian equation once Syria normalizes its relations with the United States. However, as long as there is no solution to the Golan, Syria will continue to be hard pressed to divorce itself from terrorist groups and its alliance of convenience with Iran–Syria's trump card in its fight against Israel.

Fourth, the next administration must make a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority. Iran has been able to exploit the conflict to its advantage by supporting various Islamic groups, notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad. A resolution to this debilitating conflict will not only neutralize Iran's influence in the occupied territories but mitigate a conflict that has enraged the Arab and Muslim worlds and severely aggravated the war on terrorism.

Iran occupies an extremely strategic place in the region and it will continue be to a Muslim Shiite state exercising a direct and indirect influence on the entire region, regardless of its particular form of government. Although the conflict between the United States and Iran appears to be over substantive issues, it is also an ideological and cultural and so cannot be resolved without an open-ended and honest dialogue. Until now it has been a dialogue between the deaf and the blind because of the mutual distrust, animosity, and disdain that have marred the relations between the two nations for more than 25 years.