September 12, 2009
What is the United States trying to accomplish in Iran? This simple question appears forgotten, or the answer at least taken for granted, amidst concern over Iran’s nuclear program. Yet the electoral fraud and emergence of a large and motivated Opposition in Iran this summer, combined with Iran’s insistence that it will not compromise on the nuclear issue, mandates a careful re-evaluation of American priorities. The United States would be wise to reconsider which is a more important objective: protecting the Iranian Opposition or stopping Iran’s nuclear program at all costs.
The Obama Administration entered with a seemingly clear and promising vision. It would engage Iran to foremost prevent its nuclear weaponization. By foreswearing regime change, it would create good faith leading to a broad rapprochement – the only diplomatic context in which Iran is likely to come fully clean. Mr. Obama appeared to have finally overcome the perpetual tension in American policy between regime change and behavior modification. Yet an ambitious program of engagement that bestows legitimacy on the regime now appears politically infeasible and strategically dubious. The emergence of the largest and most vocal opposition in the Islamic Republic’s history has kindled hope for a fundamental transformation, in due time, of the character of the Iranian nation-state.
The United States faces a dilemma with respect to the Opposition, however. It cannot provide much material or even rhetorical support without undermining it. The regime has charged several reformists over the years as foreign agents. This experience informed President Obama’s cautious reaction to events this summer. At best, the United States and its allies 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 values the Opposition must take its mantra from the Hippocratic Oath: “First, Do no harm.”
The most obvious risk in giving the Opposition priority is that it may not lead to any timely positive change in Iran, especially on issues important to the United States. Though Messieurs Mousavi and Rafsanjani favor a less belligerent foreign policy, it is unclear how much they would be willing to compromise on the nuclear issue. Moreover, any future reformist or moderate president would be hamstrung by a hard-line Supreme Leader. The Iranian people have an indirect role in choosing their Supreme Leader through election of the Assembly of Experts – the body which will select Ayatollah Khamenei’s eventual replacement. Yet a pro-Opposition shift in the balance of power on the Assembly may take a generation. Can the United States wait this long? This is a serious, not a rhetorical, question.
Giving priority to the Opposition also raises the prospect of having to rein in Israel. A potential Israeli attack of Iran’s nuclear facilities is the elephant in the room in which the Obama Administration constructs its Iran policy. Can the United States convince Israel to align its priorities and policies with a patient approach focused on the Opposition? If not, does the administration have the means and the courage to pressure Israel to stand down?
The worst thing that one could do for the Opposition is attack Iran. But military strikes may be the only way to prevent, or at least delay, a nuclear Iran. This is the essence of the trade-off between, and the requirement to prioritize, objectives. Preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon is generally understood to be objective number-one for the United States. Yet this is worth re-evaluating. First, it is not clear that Iran is currently pursuing a nuclear weapon. Many nuclear alarmists have either forgotten or chosen to ignore the Intelligence Community assessment that Iran ceased its weaponization efforts in 2003. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports continue to feed suspicion that Iran may have restarted weaponization efforts, or that it seeks nuclear ambiguity or a breakout potential; yet there is little available evidence of a clear and present nuclear danger. Policymakers should think carefully about a range of possible Iranian motives and strategies with respect to its nuclear program before jumping to conclusions.
The claim that Iran will use a nuclear weapon, should it develop one, to wreak genocidal havoc is likewise dubious. Iran would likely use a nuclear weapon as a deterrent and as a tool to create a stability-instability paradox: a situation in which the possession of nuclear weapons by two adversaries fosters limited, low-intensity conflict. Each side in such a scenario is comfortable causing some mischief because of its nuclear deterrent, but each also knows to draw the line at a certain point to avoid escalation to a nuclear exchange. Nuclear weapons would allow Iran to more aggressively support proxies and challenge American and Israeli interests in the region. This is certainly not good, but one should question how hasty a response this prospect merits.
Finally, one must consider the many costs and risks of a military strike. Not only would military action undermine and overwhelm the Opposition, but it could lead to a deadly US-Iran showdown in the Strait of Hormuz with serious consequences for the global economy. Repercussions could also be felt in Iraq and Afghanistan – two countries in which the US has obvious equities and Iran significant power to cause problems. An attack could also cause greater headaches for Israel, including civilian deaths wrought by proxy retaliation. Finally, an attack is not even 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.
There are, of course, middle-of-the-road options that seek to both bolster the Opposition and prevent a nuclear weapon. Sanctions may have a positive effect but are not a silver bullet and may also run the risk of alienating or undermining the Opposition. Reasonable minds can disagree about the efficacy of sanctions. Yet all can hopefully agree that the policy process must carefully weigh cost-benefit trade-offs, time horizons, and unintended consequences. Above all, American foreign policy discourse on Iran must honestly answer difficult questions about what the United States now seeks to accomplish. There are no clear answers – only a clear imperative to due diligence.