Security First Forum: Iran's Long-Term Security Interests-and Ours

Is now the time to abandon hopes of regime change and negotiate with Tehran on issues like its nuclear program and a possible security guarantee?

Amitai Etzioni makes a compelling case for a "mutual security enhancement deal" with Iran, predicated on both an implicit deadline and a credible military threat in the absence of agreement. I have to admit that the notion of a non-aggression pact with an unapologetic state sponsor of terrorism struck a rather discordant note with me at first. How would one ever trust the word of a regime whose envoys' mendacity goes far beyond anything encompassed by Sir Henry Wotton's dictum that a diplomat is "an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country"? After all, the mullahs' constantly repeated mantra-that the Iranian nuclear program is entirely peaceful and meant only to produce electricity-makes no sense from both the economic and the technical perspectives.

However, taking this skepticism as a point of departure, one has to ask how President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has managed to sell his well-educated public on this dubious expenditure-estimated to have already cost the Iranian economy, sluggish despite the oil windfall of recent years, at least $10 billion. The answer is nationalism. While Persians just barely constitute a majority of the country's 65 million people-Azeris make up 24 percent, with other ethnic groups (Gilaki, Mazandarani, Kurd, Arab, Lur, Baloch, Turkmen and others) accounting for another 25 percent-Persian nationalism has been the official creed of the state since the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi. And for all practical purposes, this imperial project has been largely successful in welding the disparate ethnic groups together, as Saddam Hussein learned during the Iran-Iraq war, when few of Khuzestan's Arabs or Sunnis from elsewhere in Iran (Sunnis represent some 10 percent of the Shi'a-dominated country's population) rose in support of his failed invasion of the nascent Islamic Republic. When they overthrew the monarch's son, Mohammad Reza, in 1979, the mullahs were careful to preserve this one innovation of the Pahlavi dynasty and continued to nurture the populace's attachment to the grandeurs of the pre-Islamic Persian civilization of the Median, Achaemenian, Parthian and Sassanian empires. Thus the apparent broad support that the nuclear program-at least as it is explained to the ordinary people-appears to enjoy across a wide spectrum of Iranian society. If a sixty-year-old contrived state like Pakistan is allowed to have nuclear technology, why not their own millennia-old polity?

Along with a classical culture, modern Iranians also inherited unparalleled geopolitical endowments quite beyond their own possession of the world's second-largest reserves of natural gas and third-largest of petroleum. To their north, Iranians abut the resource-rich Caspian basin and provide access to the strategic steppes of Central Eurasia, where a reinvigorated Russia and a rising China will face off. To their south, Iranians sit astride the entire Persian Gulf and can easily dominate the narrow Straits of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world's entire oil production must pass. To their east, Iranians are potentially a bulwark against the troubles of a possibly disintegrating (and nuclear-armed) Pakistan spilling into the already volatile Middle East. To their west, while the current Iranian regime has been less than helpful with respect to Iraq, a strong Iran will likewise serve as a firewall between whatever happens in Mesopotamia and powder kegs in Central Asia.

While the CIA's role in carrying out British wishes to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1952 is often cited in discussions of U.S.-Iranian relations, the United States, for the reasons cited above and similar calculations, has traditionally maintained a more-than-friendly interest in the security and well-being of what is today Iran since 1883. That year, President Chester Arthur dispatched Samuel Green Wheeler Benjamin to Tehran in response to an appeal from Persia's Qajar rulers for help resisting British and Russian attempts to dominate the country. With a similar mutually beneficial objective in mind, President William Howard Taft answered the Persian foreign minister's 1911 request for a "disinterested American expert as Treasurer-General" to sort out the kingdom's finances amid the depredations of the other powers by sending W. Morgan Schuster, who had earlier reorganized the finances of Cuba and the Philippines. In 1946, President Harry Truman alerted U.S. military forces, including three combat divisions in Austria about to return home, to be prepared to deploy to Iran to force Soviet troops to withdraw from the country. And it should be recalled that the eponymous strategic doctrine promulgated by the otherwise pusillanimous Carter administration in 1980-"any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force"-carried an implicit security guarantee for Iranian statehood.

All that being said, I am not especially optimistic that any kind of grand bargain can be struck with the current Iranian regime. In fact, I would not be surprised if, whether under the Bush Administration or its successor, U.S. military force will ultimately have to be deployed to persuade the mullahs to heed the demands of the United Nations Security Council to halt uranium enrichment and suspend work on plutonium-producing facilities. (And the mullahs cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons since, as I have previously argued, messianic religion is an intractable enough force that conventional deterrence cannot be counted upon to constrain their behavior.)