Outposts of Tyranny: Iran
Friday, April 22, 2005; 12:00 PM
This is the fifth discussion in a six part series focusing on the nations Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named "outposts of tyranny" and the specific issues that have caused tensions with the U.S. Authors, journalists, representatives from foreign policy think tanks, and professors will take questions from readers.
A transcript follows.
First, Iran has signed the NPT while Israel has not, so under international law there is no basis for such demands against Israel.
Second, and of far greater consequence, the United States--and a great many other countries around the world--feels threatened by Iran. While there are countries that feel threatened by Israel as well (and these countries do demand that Israel give up its nuclear arsenal) the United States does not. Nor do any of our European or Asian allies. In fact, there is an argument to be made that Israel's possession of a nuclear deterrent has made them feel far safer than they otherwise would and so has made them more restrained in their foreign policy.
But the simple truth is that our concerns about nuclear non-proliferation are much more about pragmatism than principle. The United States never said a word about French development of nuclear weapons and we actively aided the British. The same can be said about India. We briefly penalized Pakistan for its 1998 nuclear test, only to reverse course when we found we needed Islamabad after 9/11. Moreover, we are no different in this than any other country around the world. In the Muslim world itself there is now a parallel double standard--with Muslims demanding that Israel give up its nuclear arsenal while remaining silent about Pakistan's weaponry (and Iran's efforts to procure them). So everyone is hypocritical about nukes, and I for one don't believe that the principle of non-proliferation should be the only determinant of U.S. policy regarding nuclear weapons.
I think the U.S. (and our allies) have been relatively consistent, and generally correct, in identifying countries where nuclear proliferation is a threat to our interests and international security/stability--North Korea, Libya, Iraq, and Iran, and taking actions to try to stop them. (Recognizing that we have not always succeeded or even gone about it the right way). The fact is that since the Iranian revolution, the Iranian regime has been an anti-status quo power that has often defined its policy in opposition to that of the United States, and has aggressively employed terrorism, subversion, and even a variety of other dangerous instruments to achieve its aim. This is why the United States--and so many other countries, including European allies who were not as exorcised about Iraq--would like to dissuade or prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Nor do I buy the rationale made by some that because there is a remote possibility that Iran would give them to terrorists--and the consequences of them doing so would obviously be catastrophic--that this justifies any action. Personally, I am far more concerned that Pakistani nukes could fall into the hands of terrorists than I am with Iranian nukes, so if this is really our rationale, shouldn't we be doing everything we can to eliminate Pakistan's nuclear arsenal?
I will also say that, like the questioner, I think it unlikely that Iran would actually use their nuclear weapons. Since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's leadership has mostly demonstrated a high degree of rationality and prudence--they are aggressive, anti-American, and even murderous, but they are not reckless the way that Saddam Hussein was.
So what is the danger? Well, there are three. First, the Iranian leadership does have some real fanatics in it as well--people like Ayatollah Khomeini. And although they do not hold the reins of governance right now, if they ever did, then I would be extremely concerned about what Iran might do. As long as Iran's leadership remains a small, closed oligarchy that includes so many of these zealots and wild ideologues, I don't think we can dismiss this threat.
Second, there is the very real fear that while Iran might not use the weapons themselves, they might believe that possessing them will deter any retaliation by the United States, thereby enabling them to be more aggressive at lower levels on the force spectrum. This is exactly what happened with Pakistan. The Pakistanis wanted nuclear weapons for defensive reasons--to deter India. However, once they got them and tested them in 1998, Pakistani military leaders became convinced that India was now completely deterred. In other words, India would be unlikely to ever attack Pakistan either with nuclear weapons or with conventional weapons for fear of escalation to nuclear war. This made them very aggressive and led them to drastically increase their support for the Kashmiri insurgents attacking India. The result was the Kargill crisis of 2000 that nearly resulted in a war between the two. I think we have to be very concerned that Iran would think the same: there are a number of Iranian leaders who have noted that Iran has been forced to rein in its efforts in the region for fear of provoking an American military response and have suggested that they want nuclear weapons so that they won't have to fear that anymore. That is a very dangerous way of thinking about the world and the role of nuclear weapons.
Finally, there is the fear that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, a number of other countries in the region are going to feel threatened--Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even Egypt--and they will likely react in some way. We don't know how they will react, but it could be very dangerous. The Israelis might attack Iran (although I think that unlikely) and the others might try to acquire nuclear arsenals of their own, opening up new cans of worms.
At the end of the day, there should be little reason to doubt that the United States, the Middle East, and the world would be much better off if this regime in Tehran never acquires nuclear weapons.
However, there are two related points worth mentioning. First, assuming we are not going to invade or launch air strikes to try obliterate the Iranian nuclear program (both of which I think have more liabilities than benefits at this point and for the foreseeable future) we are going to have to convince the Iranians that it is in their best interests to give up their nuclear program. This is not going to be easy, and it is why I advocate a policy of a multilateral approach with our European and Japanese allies to provide Iran with very significant economic benefits for complying and very severe economic sanctions if they refuse--we need to convince them they will be much happier without the weapons than with them.
Second, we need to recognize that Iran actually does have legitimate security concerns of its own, and that we are also going to have to address them if we are going to convince them not to pursue nuclear weapons. This is why I have argued for providing them with security guarantees that we won't invade, and why I have proposed that as part of this process we begin to set up a new security architecture in the Persian Gulf along the lines of what we did with the Russians and Europeans during the 1980s and 1990s that would make it possible for us to address Iran's security concerns in a cooperative, multilateral framework. It is worth pointing out that a number of senior Iranians have proposed exactly the same thing and while it won't be easy to make this work in the Persian Gulf (it was pretty tough to do in Europe) there is also no reason to believe it can't be made to work.
These trends have started to create two new factors in the Middle East. First, some of the region's anti-status quo states, and particularly Iran, increasingly look to China as a great power backer against the United States, the region's ultimate enforcer of the status quo. The Chinese have never shown any concern about WMD proliferation, terrorism, human rights, or anything else, but they are looking for markets and sweetheart deals on oil. That fits Iran's agenda perfectly and so you have seen a deepening of Chinese-Iranian ties. Second, the Chinese themselves seem increasingly concerned about their dependence on Persian Gulf oil and American dominance of the region. Basically, we have control of the oil "spigot" upon which they increasingly depend. It seems that they are thinking more and more about how they can reduce our dominance in the region while increasing their own influence. All of this suggests that the Persian Gulf might be a tenser place in the future.
Now some caveats are in order. First, Chinese influence remains slight, even though it is growing. It is certainly the case that trade with China can help Iran's economy, but Iran's own economists have made clear that there is no way China can provide Iran with the levels of trade and investment they need to actually solve their economic problems. Second, the Chinese are NOT looking for a fight with the U.S., at least as best we can tell. As part of this, the Chinese have recognized that while they may not care about terrorism and nuclear proliferation, we and the Europeans do and they have been helpful at times mostly just so that they don't get too crosswise with us. SO it means the region could become even more difficult and complicated, but not necessarily that we are headed pell-mell for disaster.
For all of these reasons, if the U.S. ever wanted to resort to the military option to deal with Iran's nuclear program, we will have to do it ourselves--we should not and probably cannot rely on Israel to address Iran's nuclear program. IN general, I think the military options with Iran are not good and I think there are much better diplomatic options--and I always prefer diplomacy to force. But I think goading the Israelis into a war with the Iranians would be a terrible idea for us and for the Israelis.
That's why I, and most Iran experts, focus on Iran's unconventional capabilities. Basically, the Iranians also seem to recognize that if they ever got into a conventional fight with us they would lose. In fact, they did, during the Iran-Iraq War on April 18, 1988 and we sunk a big chunk of their navy in an afternoon without really trying. The Iranians have never forgotten that, nor have they forgotten what we have done to Iraq's armed forces in 1991 and again in 2003, after all this was the army that defeated them in 1988.
So the Iranians have tried hard never to cross swords with us again since 1988. Instead, they rely on terrorism, covert action, subversion, etc. They have done things like tried to support coup attempts against the Bahraini government and blowing up the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia to wage asymmetric warfare against us. And since it is so hard for the United States to retaliate against Iran for these kind of actions (we did not retaliate for either of these Iranian "attacks"), and we be even more so if we knew we risked nuclear escalation, it's why some Iranian decision-makers want the nukes, and so many Western governments don't want them to get them.
But it's hard because the Iranian people are not in charge of their country and they are run by a regime that continues to define its mission in the world as defying the US--the Great Satan or, as they now call us, Global Arrogance. Reagan, Bush 1, and Clinton all tried to reach out to the Iranian regime to fundamentally change the nature of the relationship and begin a total rapprochement (Reagan's was the Iran-Contra fiasco) and every time, the hard-line elements in the Iranian regime killed the effort. As long as they have the power to keep doing that, I don't think an improvement is likely (and that's not to say that I am certain the Bush 2 Administration would reciprocate if they did, just that the first obstacle is on the Iranian side, then we would need to convince the Bush White House to respond in kind).
Wish I could be more optimistic.
All the best,
- Ken Pollack