Reshaping our Iran Policy

January 3, 2007 Topic: Security Regions: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: DiplomacyPostmodernismSociology

Reshaping our Iran Policy

Mini Teaser: U.S. policy must ensure the price of Iranian aggression becomes unaffordable.

by Author(s): Jim Saxton

In recent issues of The National Interest, there has been an ongoing discussion as to whether Iran can be deterred as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. I have serious doubts. The ideology that governs Iran is as noxious as the radicalism that fuels Al-Qaeda. Moreover, the resurgence of the fanatical spirit of the Iranian Revolution, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's commitment to exporting the revolution to Lebanon, the greater Middle East and the entire Muslim world, calls into question whether we can expect a nuclear Iran to be a rational state actor disciplined by deterrent doctrines such as "mutually assured destruction." Maurice R. Greenberg, who met with Ahmadinejad in New York this past September, summed it up: "We can't deal with him. You can't deal with this guy. I do not believe that we should let him come into possession of the capabilities to manufacture a nuclear device, or achieve it by an indirect means, such as buying it from somebody else."[1]

While no one truly knows if a nuclear Iran would target Israel-though President Ahmadinejad continues to give this assumption credence-it is clear that a nuclear Iran will mean an emboldened Iran. Iran has taken full advantage of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the void left in Central Asia and the Middle East, to make its bid for regional supremacy. The regime already uses surrogate terrorist organizations like Hizballah and Hamas to spread terror, while avoiding direct links to these cowardly activities. Proxy wars, like the battle this past summer between Hizballah and Israel, will become the rule-not the exception-and this could lead to increased clashes between Iranian-trained and financed groups and U.S. forces, a pattern already evident in Iraq.

In short, a nuclear Iran translates into a bellicose Iran which-given these assumptions about the intentions of the Iranian regime-poses a direct threat to U.S. national security.

Iran's intransigence over its nuclear weapons program is just one symptom of a regime replete with conduct that defies the norms and values that underlie the international community. Focusing exclusively on the nuclear issue may distract the United States and the international community from the litany of security concerns posed by Tehran, most alarmingly its brazen use of terrorism. Simply put, Iran is different from other states, like Pakistan or India, that have developed nuclear programs in violation of the npt. Moreover, Iran's penchant for mixing radical ideology and terrorism makes Tehran a problem more complex and challenging than the world's most recent renegade proliferator-North Korea. By treating Iran as just another nuclear case, we risk losing sight of the fundamental threat posed by Tehran: not the capability, but the regime that controls the capability.

It amazes me that our Defense Department can spend billions of dollars in the fight against terrorism, but our diplomatic arm is unable to spend capital on making the United Nations confront states, like Iran, that support terrorism. To its credit, the administration has at least persuaded the main bodies of the United Nations-the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Secretariat-that Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization that poses a threat to world peace. One may wonder why this is an achievement, but one only has to recall that it was in the UN where terrorism was legitimized as an acceptable form of popular resistance (the history of the PLO in the UN is a case in point).

But to date, the United Nations has been unwilling to confront any state sponsor of terrorism. When the United Nations has "confronted" this issue, predictably it has led to a perverted result, with Israel demonized as a state sponsor of terrorism. This is an untenable situation. Al-Qaeda is not the only manifestation of terrorism, and, as I argue here, may not be the most dangerous manifestation of terrorism. Member states need to confront-on a diplomatic plane-states like Iran that brazenly use terrorism to leverage their national interest. This will only happen with a new, refined approach by the United States when confronting Iran in the diplomatic battleground of Turtle Bay.

Presently, the Bush Administration's Iran policy is one-dimensional both in terms of the threat it addresses and in terms of the strategy it pursues. The threat is Iran's nuclear program and the strategy is diplomacy in the United Nations Security Council. The United States, as a result, is forced to traverse the hurdle-laden terrain of diplomatic consensus-building, all for the purpose of garnering international support and a Security Council blessing for a sanctions regime against Iran that may or may not halt Iran's nuclear program.

The benefit of this strategy is not yet apparent, while the cost is identifiable. The longer it takes to mobilize the international community, the more time Iran has to refine its nuclear program. We must remember that time is on Iran's side. The slow slog of executing our diplomatic strategy simply benefits Iran's interests.

To be sure, identifying when diplomacy has failed is an art, not a science. It depends on the power of persuasion and how the evidentiary record is parsed. However, there is strong evidence that the United Nations Security Council has failed to confront Iran.

Most of our diplomatic efforts over the past two years have tried to frame the issue by forcing Iran to choose either to halt its nuclear program in exchange for a package of incentives or to face sanctions. This culminated in the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1696, passed in July, which set a clear deadline-August 31-for Iran to choose between carrots and sticks. Some five months later, Iran has not accepted the incentive package and continues to elude sanctions. Instead, the carrots remain on the table, and Russia and China stridently oppose the adoption of any sanctions regime. As the Security Council has suffered from paralysis, Tehran has been able to refine its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, fight a proxy terrorist war in Lebanon and forge alliances with hostile regimes in our backyard, such as Venezuela and Cuba.

You do not have to be a realist to conclude that diplomacy with Iran without mettle is not going to work. A new Iran policy needs to demonstrate to Tehran and our allies that there are alternative tracks-other than the UN or conventional diplomacy-that the United States can take to affect Iran's behavior.

Foremost, U.S. strategy toward Iran has to be embedded in a larger security strategy for the region. The conflict between Israel and Hizballah this past summer revealed a reality in the region that many suspected: the Arab world-particularly the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia-does not want a nuclear Iran and fears Iranian regional hegemony. The prospect of a powerful Lebanese Hizballah-taking its cues from Tehran and willing to destabilize the region-threatens the security of Arab states, particularly those Gulf states with large Shi‘a populations. Moreover, it reaffirmed for Arab states that a Shi‘a state in the region with a nuclear bomb is an untenable state of affairs.

The United States must exploit Arab anxiety about Iran's nuclear program. Our policy needs to take note of how Arab states view Tehran: They see a state that seeks to revive ancient Persian hegemony and dominate the Arab world, more than they see an Islamic state that wants to challenge the "Great Satan."

Moreover, U.S. policymakers should turn our weakness-the regional perception that, because of Iraq, U.S. influence is at an all-time low-into our strength by marshalling Arab states to take responsibility for their own fates. If one thing motivates Arab regimes, it is the fear of instability and of losing control of the state. Thus, the prospect of an adventurous Persia with a United States "bogged down" in Iraq might force Arab states to work together and form some kind of a regional security organization.

To its credit the Bush Administration has been working towards a Gulf Security Dialogue (GSD) that would-if implemented-execute an Iranian containment strategy for the Gulf states. Successful implementation will depend on focus and resolve. The combination of stabilizing Iraq, a lame duck administration and the beginning of the presidential campaign season in the not-too-distant future make the prospect of a revamped Iran policy seem dubious.

A successful GSD, in my opinion, should assist the Gulf states in three practical ways.

First, it should create a missile defense architecture in the Gulf. This will have the twin benefit of weakening Iran's influence in the region and preventing Arab states-particularly Saudi Arabia-from becoming the next nuclear proliferators. This would not be a cosmetic solution, but would provide tangible security for the region. For example, Jordan and Egypt have reason to fear that if an Iranian strike against Israel is intercepted by Israeli Arrow or Patriot missile batteries, then there could be nuclear fallout over their respective territories. Having a missile defense architecture that interdicts an Iranian nuclear warhead in the Persian Gulf makes a big difference.

Second, the GSD should facilitate the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). This has already begun with numerous states participating in exercises this past fall in the Persian Gulf. Having the Gulf states exercise with the U.S. Navy will not only give them the technical know-how of completing maritime interdiction and proliferation prevention operations, but it will also shore up military to military relationships in the event Tehran blocks the Strait of Hormuz.

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