Imaginative Diplomacy, Not Hard-line Rhetoric:Dealing with Iran 's Nuclear Program

On July 16, the governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will meet, and if it is determined that Iran is in some sort of violation of its IAEA safeguards commitment, then we will know the likely direction of policy toward Iran .

On July 16, the governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will meet, and if it is determined that Iran is in some sort of violation of its IAEA safeguards commitment, then we will know the likely direction of policy toward Iran .  Certainly, it is clear is that the Iranian nuclear program is more advanced than people anticipated.   The light-water reactor at Bushehr is scheduled to become operational in 2004 (even though the nuclear fuel is supposed to be safeguarded by Russia ).  A uranium enrichment facility is under construction at Natanz, which will use gas centrifuges that Iran produces domestically at facilities dispersed throughout the country.  Iran is allegedly developing a heavy-water reactor at Arak , and there is a uranium conversion plant at Isfahan which processes uranium oxide into uranium hexaflouride, the first step in the nuclear fuel cycle.  

However, it is unwise to look at the "Iranian bomb" outside of a broader foreign policy context.  

Our difficulties with Iran stem not only from the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, but continued support for terrorist organizations such as Hizballah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad--at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian issue is at a critical stage.  The future of Iraq remains unresolved, and there is great uncertainty about what Iran 's intended role will be.  Iran remains engaged in Afghanistan , in part to suppress the drug trade but also to secure its own geopolitical interests.  

Ultimately, one cannot separate the "Iranian bomb" from larger questions about the character of the regime.  To borrow the terminology of the Homeland Security Department, an Iranian regime which possesses nuclear weapons and supports terrorism that kills Americans constitutes at least a "Code Orange" if not a "Code Red."  On the other hand, an Iran that no longer sponsors anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorism and is prepared to cooperate with the United States on a whole host of regional issues yet continues to maintain a nuclear infrastructure is a problem, but is perhaps a "Code Yellow."  

In my assessment, there is a very open debate occurring in Iran at the present time over the wisdom of sponsoring terrorism as a component of foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis Israel .  There is also discussion as to whether it is wise to cross the threshold, from developing a nuclear infrastructure to actually assembling the components for a bomb.  There is much less debate, however, over Iran 's right to possess and develop its nuclear power industry.  

This raises the question, therefore, as to what the goals of American policy ought to be, and whether such goals are realistic.  If the goal is to rid Iran of any and all nuclear programs (and to do so by forceful "regime change"), it is a very awesome task to undertake, and one that at present would find little support from America 's friends and allies except Israel .  If the policy, however, is to delay, defer and contain Iran 's nuclear program while encouraging "regime reform", such a goal seems achievable and would gain support from countries all around the world.  

Let us, however, have no illusions.  A country like Iran with abundant financial resources derived from oil revenues, with a talented population and the requisite engineering infrastructure in place, sooner or later will acquire a nuclear capability, short of a total occupation of the country.  This is the lesson of India and Pakistan .  

This, of course, would be deleterious to American interests.  If Iran crosses the threshold from possessing a nuclear infrastructure to actually constructing and deploying actual nuclear weapons, other neighboring countries-- Turkey , Saudi Arabia and Egypt most notably--would re-examine their own position on acquiring such weapons.  The smaller states of the Gulf would certainly desire more explicit American security guarantees.  Combined with its ongoing missile development program, Iran could threaten Europe and perhaps ultimately the U.S. mainland.  It would also raise the specter that Iran could give nuclear materials to extremists and terrorists, particularly to Israel 's enemies.  Finally, whether Iran formally withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or continued its nuclear program in defiance of the NPT, the current (albeit flawed) system designed to stem nuclear proliferation would be irreparably damaged.  

The use of force to destroy Iran 's nuclear program (principally by air power) is one option, and while it should not be automatically taken off the table, it must be viewed soberly as a policy of final resort.  Bombing Bushehr right now would be an act of utter madness.  Yes, much of Iran 's nuclear infrastructure could be reduced to rubble--but there is no guarantee that all elements--such as the centrifuge production facilities--could be located and destroyed.  Iran has a more formidable air-defense network than Iraq , which would require an extensive air suppression operation, increasing the chances that U.S. aircraft and lives would be lost.  I do not believe that the United States would find any support whatsoever for such an operation, except perhaps from Israel , and Iran could exercise many hostile options at its disposal to make life very difficult for us in the region in response.  

Some of the Bush Administration's supporters outside of government have been very vocal in advocating more provocative actions toward Iran; pushing for regime change via covert operations, support for groups such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq, even entertaining the thought of cultivating Azeri separatists.  The risks of mishandling Iran , however, are huge, with serious ramifications for American interests.