Paul Pillar

Getting Iran Right

While the topic du jour continues to be getting Egypt right, I offer observations derived from remarks I made today at a forum on U.S. policy options for dealing with Iran. The forum was organized by the National Security Network and the Center for American Progress. I was asked to address possible and acceptable policy options, how we should go about pursuing those options, and how steps taken toward one outcome would rule out or empower other outcomes.

Much of the American public discourse on Iran exhibits a couple of unfortunate characteristics. One is a demonization of Iran that fosters emotion over analysis and that encourages absolutism of the “must prevent through whatever means necessary” sort while discouraging more sober assessment of costs and benefits of different courses of action. The other is a remarkably narrow focus on one issue—Iran's nuclear program—and even more narrowly on one aspect of that program: the enrichment of uranium. This is a classic case of goal substitution, as if spinning centrifuges were a surrogate for everything that matters in the relationship of the United States and Iran. If we could somehow rid the discourse of these unhelpful attributes it would greatly improve the climate for arriving at a sound policy toward the Islamic republic.

Probably no agreement with Iran is attainable that rejects a continued Iranian enrichment program. A nuclear program of some sort, as distinct from a nuclear weapons program, has very broad support among Iranians. It also is a recognized right of nations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It is simply not realistic to think that a pressured Iran is one day going to cry uncle and give up the program.

A preferred and feasible policy outcome is one that entails a peaceful, nonmilitary Iranian nuclear program, as Tehran claims it is conducting. This is preferable to an outcome that includes Iranian nuclear weapons because (perhaps among other reasons) it would involve less change from the status quo and thus less uncertainty, and less chance of destabilizing responses to an Iranian nuclear weapon. The outcome is still feasible, and thus it still should be pursued, because any future development of Iranian nuclear weapons would involve decisions in Tehran that have not yet been made.

A less preferred outcome, but one that the United States and the West can live with—and thus does not warrant a whatever-means-necessary approach to heading it off—is one that does include an Iran with nuclear weapons. This is the Iran-related topic on which there is the most glaring lack of analysis, or even logic. Despite the enormous amount of rhetoric about how awful such a contingency would be, and the taken-for-granted assumption that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptably dangerous and damaging, there is almost no careful consideration of exactly how and why this would be so. The less subtle version of this conventional wisdom envisions an Iranian bolt-from-the-blue with a nuclear weapon. This would be a prospect only if the principles of deterrence were somehow repealed or if Iranian leaders were suicidal, neither of which is the case. The more subtle, and very frequently heard version, is that a nuclear-armed Iran would be more likely than a non-nuclear Iran to engage in other behavior damaging to the region or to U.S. interests. Just why this should be so never seems to get examined; instead the conventional wisdom is an inchoate notion that a nuclear Iran would somehow feel its oats and consequently would be up to no good.

Consider carefully what conditions would have to be present for an Iranian nuclear weapon to make a difference in Iranian behavior. There would have to be something that Iran is not doing now but would want to do and that Tehran sees as being in its interest to do. There also would have to be some threat, whether stated or implicit, that someone else is holding over Tehran's head and that is the reason that Iran is not doing what it otherwise would like to do. And execution of that threat would have to be so serious that it would be plausible for Iran to respond by escalating to the level of using nuclear weapons, which is why in the presence of Iranian nuclear weapons the threat would no longer be credible and no longer restrain Iranian behavior. I have never seen any analysis that fills in these blanks and identifies behaviors and threats that would fit this pattern. In thinking about this pattern myself, I find it hard to come up with a plausible scenario that fits it.

One other important aspect of a preferred outcome for U.S. policy, with or without Iranian nuclear weapons, is a reduction in U.S.-Iranian tension and an imparting of some of the stability, confidence, and mutual understanding that is so badly missing from the relationship now. Progress toward this outcome would reduce the danger of crises or animosity spinning out of control. It also would make possible positive cooperation on matters of mutual concern. And there are a good many such matters—such as the future of Afghanistan, just to name one that is currently of high interest to both countries.