NOW WHAT? - US STRATEGY AFTER THE IRANIAN ELECTION
Original Analysis by Chris Ferrero
July 30, 2009
What strategy should the United States pursue toward Iran now? The Iranian presidential election has been a game-changer not only in Tehran but also in Washington. The prospect of comprehensive engagement leading to a fundamental transformation of US-Iran relations appears to be dead, at least for the foreseeable future. The United States must now rethink its strategy and re-prioritize its objectives. Specifically, it must decide which of two discrete objectives is more important: protecting the Iranian Opposition or stopping Iran’s nuclear program at all costs. There are no ideal policy options; any decision will entail potentially costly trade-offs.
Pulling the Reins on Engagement
Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency raised hope that a significant thaw could finally be achieved in US-Iran relations. Under a comprehensive settlement (or “grand bargain,” as it has been called), Iran would cease its WMD programs, cease sponsorship of terrorism – especially in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories – recognize Israel, help fight al-Qaeda, and cooperate to achieve peace and security in Iraq and Afghanistan. In exchange, the US would lift sanctions, unfreeze assets, grant Iran a central role in regional political and security affairs, and – most critically – acknowledge the legitimacy of the Iranian theocracy and foreswear regime change. Ultimately, relations could be normalized. Though Mr. Obama has never explicitly advocated a singular grand bargain, such a positive transformation has long been the Holy Grail in US-Iran relations.
Such grand steps are now strategically dubious and politically infeasible. Several experts express concern that ambitious engagement would bolster the Iranian regime’s legitimacy and undermine the Opposition. There will be no photo ops or handshakes between Presidents Obama and Ahmadinejad. A comprehensive settlement may remain a long-term US goal. Yet in the near- to medium-term, the US is more likely to resort to, and be better served by, pressure and coercion.
Behavior Modification versus Regime Change: A Constant Tension in US Policy
The US has vacillated since 1979 between two main policy objectives vis-à-vis Iran: behavior modification and regime change. Behavior modification has always been official policy, but a near-constant undercurrent of regime-change sentiment has at times exacerbated tensions and lent to policy incoherence. Many Americans would undoubtedly like to see regime change – provided a friendlier government emerges. The recent electoral crisis and emergence of a highly-motivated opposition movement in Iran appears to have created the greatest potential ever for the collapse of the mischievous theocracy. Yet the US and its allies are fixated on an acute behavioral issue – Iran’s ostensible pursuit of nuclear weapons.
As has always been the case, the US must decide whether it seeks to reform the current regime or effectuate its overthrow. The US will likely focus on behavior modification while hoping for regime change, as has usually been the case. Caught amidst this tension in US policy are more specific decisions about nuclear weapons and the Iranian Opposition. It does not appear possible to bolster the Opposition while attempting to guarantee a nuclear-free Iran. One must take precedence.
“Supporting” the Opposition
The US faces a great dilemma with respect to the Iranian Opposition. It cannot provide material or even rhetorical support to reformists or regime opponents without undermining them. The regime has arrested and prosecuted several reformists over the years on the premise that they are foreign agents. This unique dilemma is rooted in deep-seated Iranian grievance and paranoia wrought by historical foreign intervention (especially American). Bush Administration programs and rhetoric, though well-intentioned, made life more rather than less difficult for Iranian reformists. This experience has informed President Obama’s cautious statements about the fraud and crackdown this summer.
To give the Iranian Opposition top priority in US policy entails risk and uncertainty. First, because the US cannot actively support the Opposition, one could argue that to give it priority is to yield a significant amount of initiative. At best, the US can indirectly “support” the Opposition through measures that make it difficult – both politically and materially – for the regime to repress dissent or preserve whatever modicum of legitimacy it still has. Ultimately, any policy that places the Opposition first must take its mantra from the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.”
Finally, a policy of protecting or supporting the Opposition would ideally be tied to some broader objective and vision of US-Iran relations: either behavior modification or regime change. It is unclear whether the Opposition promises either. Major Opposition figures such as Messrs. Mousavi, Rafsanjani, and Khatami favor a less belligerent foreign policy, but none has foresworn Iran’s “right” to a nuclear program. Moreover, a moderate or reformist president would be hamstrung as long as Khamene’i or another hard-line Ayatollah occupied the office of Supreme Leader.
Focusing on the Nuclear Program
It may be that military strikes are the best or even the only way to prevent a nuclear Iran. Attacking Iran is the worst thing that the US (or Israel) could do for the Opposition’s cause. This is the essence of the trade-off. Let us therefore weigh the nuclear issue.
Why Does Iran Want Nukes?
In deciding whether to give primacy to the nuclear issue, one must ask what an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean. Several foreign-policy “hawks” warn that a nuclear Iran could lead to cataclysm. Iran is irrational and wants to “wipe Israel off the map.” Clearly, if one believes that Iran would use nuclear weapons for offensive genocidal purposes, preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb at any cost makes sense. This is not likely, however.
Despite an alarmist American public discourse, Iran is not led by an irrational, genocidal regime. The majority of Iran experts writing in foreign policy circles argue just the opposite: that Iran is a coldly calculating state focused on traditional, Realist interests such as survival, power, and empire. Iran wants to be a dominant player in its region and on the world stage. It uses the language of Islamic revolution and justice to further its geopolitical aims.
Nuclear weapons are a means to achieve Great Power status and ensure survival through deterrence. If Iran really does want to fight Israel, it is unlikely to do so with nuclear weapons except as a last resort. Instead, Iran likely hopes to create a “stability-instability paradox.” A stability-instability paradox is a situation theorized by political scientist Glenn Snyder in which the possession of nuclear weapons by two adversaries fosters lower-level conflict between them. Each side is comfortable causing some military mischief because of its nuclear deterrent. Yet each also knows to draw the line at a certain point to avoid escalation to a nuclear exchange. Nuclear weapons lead to neither peace nor disaster. Possession of nuclear weapons would allow Iran to more aggressively support its Lebanese and Palestinian surrogates, thereby weakening Israel – its main geopolitical rival. This is not good, of course, but it is not nuclear genocide, either.
Finally, even if Iran’s most messianic ideologues gained control of decisions of war and peace, they would still be unlikely to choose the offensive nuclear option. Prophecies suggest that the Shi’a Mahdi (Messiah) will return to the world via Iran amidst war and mayhem. Some fear that Iran would use nuclear weapons to hasten the Mahdi’s return. Yet even Iranian messianists must know that Iran would be struck with nuclear weapons in retaliation for a nuclear attack of its own. Surely it would be unfortunate and anti-climactic for the Mahdi to return to an unpopulated, radioactive wasteland.
Does Iran Even Want Nukes?
There are additional holes in the nukes-first argument. Despite the conventional wisdom, the US Intelligence Community (IC) is not sure that Iran is currently pursuing a nuclear weapon. The IC issued a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in late 2007 stating with high confidence that Iran stopped its pursuit of a weapon in 2003. The NIE states with medium confidence that Iran had not re-started its weaponization efforts as of mid-2007. Finally, the IC determines that late-2009 is the earliest that Iran could produce enough highly-enriched uranium for a weapon, but even that is very unlikely. This intelligence assessment illuminates two important points: Iran may not be as determined to acquire a nuclear weapon as believed, and it is still too early to take alarmist action. Iran is currently enriching uranium to a non-weapons-grade level, according to an early July IAEA report. US-Iran-Relations.com judges that Iran likely seeks to maintain nuclear ambiguity and break-out potential for a weapon.
Consequences of Focusing on the Nuclear Program
It is becoming more and more apparent that a continued focus on Iran’s nuclear program could lead to a military strike, most likely by Israel. Military strikes are assumed to be most likely to stop – or at least significantly set back – Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. But such action would be very costly and uncertain of success. Setting back the nuclear program through strikes would also set back the Opposition movement several years. Iran is a proud nation likely to rally behind the flag in case of attack. This does not mean that reformists and oppositionists would convert to believers in the regime, but their cause would be overwhelmed by the cause of defending Iranian land and honor. Marvin Weinbaum has recently written a compelling op-ed arguing that the regime would welcome an attack, as it would deflect attention from Iran’s internal problems and catalyze support for the regime.
Moreover, Iran would likely retaliate economically and militarily. It could close the Strait of Hormuz, causing global oil prices to skyrocket and leading to a dangerous naval showdown with the United States. It could also act through its proxies in Lebanon and Palestine, causing greater headaches and misery for Israel – including civilian deaths. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, has warned that an attack would be destabilizing. Finally, an attack is itself not certain to eradicate all or even the most important elements of Iran’s nuclear program. Important, unknown facilities may exist and be deeply buried or otherwise protected against attack.
Clearly, it is not advisable to make stopping Iran’s nuclear program at all costs America’s number-one priority. What, then, should the United States do?
The Best Approach: Pressure the Regime, Do No Harm to the Opposition
The United States and its allies should pressure the Iranian regime, do everything possible short of war to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, and give priority to protecting the Iranian Opposition. The success of the Opposition provides the greatest chance for a positive, sustainable, long-term transformation in Iranian behavior and US-Iran relations (see previous analysis of Iran’s political future here). The precise nature of an Opposition “victory” need not yet be specified. The dangers of a nuclear program are modest enough to allow events in Iran to further unfold.
This does not mean sitting back while centrifuges spin, however. It means ratcheting up coercive diplomacy and giving it more time. The US should continue to work through the United Nations Security Council to pressure Iran with multilateral sanctions. This serves at least a symbolic if not practical purpose. Skepticism of the UN process is largely justified; Russia and China are likely to stand in the way of an optimal sanctions regime against Iran. The US should thus pursue a parallel sanctions track with its European allies. Europe may ultimately hold the key to successful political and economic coercion that significantly weakens the Iranian regime and/or forces its capitulation on the nuclear issue. The European Union is Iran’s largest trading partner. It accepts roughly one-third of Iran’s exports. The EU provides Iran with much of its manufacturing and transportation equipment and chemicals. Perhaps most critically, European-owned companies provide Iran with nearly 40 percent of its refined gasoline. Despite being an oil power, Iran lacks its own refining capacity. Gasoline imports are its economic Achilles’ heel. (See Mark Dubowitz’s recent, compelling case for energy sanctions in the Wall Street Journal.) The United States Congress is already planning its own effort to exploit this vulnerability via the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which could become law within a couple of months.
This path is not without its own risks. Sanctions are not a panacea, as demonstrated by Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service reports. Going much further than Russia and China are willing to go with sanctions – especially outside of the UN framework – could simply push Iran into those countries’ arms. Moreover, Iran, in cahoots with Russia, would have its own energy leverage against Europe. Russia and Iran are, respectively, the number-one and number-two natural gas producers in Eurasia. Retaliatory natural gas withholdings could lead to some cold nights and winters in Europe. Considering the alternatives, however, this risk is worth taking.
The international community has not yet realized the full potential of political and economic coercion. The United States should take the lead in realizing its full potential before taking or allowing drastic military action. Recent events in Iran are likely to help galvanize Europe to take the more aggressive action prescribed here. The US should simultaneously work to convince (or if necessary, pressure) Israel not to attack Iran unnecessarily or prematurely. International economic and political pressure still has the potential to slow or stop Iranian progress toward a nuclear weapon. It could also indirectly help the Iranian Opposition by diminishing the resources and weakening the will of the regime.
There is no obvious formula for US strategy and policy toward Iran, especially under current circumstances. The first step in policy formulation should be to decide which of two discrete objectives is more important: doing no harm to the Iranian Opposition or stopping Iran’s nuclear program at all costs. Iran’s nuclear efforts are of justifiable concern but should not evoke the alarmism that would lead to a military strike. Instead of taking or allowing military action that hurts the Opposition, the US and its allies should pursue an optimal coercion strategy targeting the Iranian regime economically and politically. This strategy should include a Hippocratic oath-like commitment to “do no harm” to the Opposition. The reform movement in Iran currently presents the greatest hope for positive, fundamental change in US-Iran relations – whether through regime change or behavior modification. The US and its allies can afford to be patient.
* Correction: This analysis originally stated that Russia and Iran were the world's top-ranked natural gas producers. This has been corrected; Russia and Iran are the top natural gas producers in Eurasia.
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