Revisiting Iran

Revisiting Iran

Mini Teaser: The United States must find new and innovative ways to avoid the trap of a dead-end policy towards Iran. A roundtable discussion.

by Author(s): Fareed ZakariaCliff KupchanJoel RosenthalGideon RoseRichard K. BettsIan BremmerNikolas K. Gvosdev

Revisiting Iran?
Chaired by Ian Bremmer and Fareed Zakaria, the Gramercy Round convenes over dinner in New York's historic Gramercy Tavern. Its task is to consider pressing issues that have received insufficient attention from the established foreign policy community. The round meets to discuss questions with an eye to promoting realistic assessments and innovative approaches for American policy. The round met late last year to consider innovative approaches to Iran. The situation has changed since that meeting, so several of the round's participants updated their thoughts for The National Interest.

Fareed Zakaria
An effective response to Iran's nuclear challenge requires our policymakers to answer three interrelated questions. First, is Iran's goal to achieve hegemony in the Persian Gulf and throughout the Middle East? Second, is that possibility sufficient cause for the United States to act, and to strike Iran militarily? And finally, should it be a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy to militarily neuter countries inimical to our interests?

It makes a major difference if one concludes that Iran pursues nuclear weapons for a suicidal Götterdämmerung, in which Iran sacrifices its statehood to strike Israel and the United States. But if, despite the rhetoric, Iran is engaged in traditional statecraft (seeking hegemony and influence), it opens the door to a wider range of policies, among them containment, deterrence and negotiation.

But there are no "guaranteed solutions." A carrot-and-stick approach has led states like Brazil, Kazakhstan and Libya to either give up existing nuclear weapons or forego nuclear weapons programs. On the other hand, sanctions had no effect on India and Pakistan during the 1990s. After all, back in 1971, then-Pakistani Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto famously declared, "Even if Pakistanis have to eat grass, we will make the bomb." So the challenge is how to punish Iran if it continues its nuclear program.

U.S. policy needs to be much more deft and able to operate on a two-track approach, rather than defining different alternatives as "either/ors." There is no reason not to censure Iran-while at the same time holding out the possibility of Tehran's rehabilitation as a full member of the international community. Negotiations can occur alongside sanctions for past and current indiscretions. We need to show Iran that its nuclear program can make it more of a pariah state-but we also have to allow a viable "way out."

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and host of the public television show Foreign Exchange.

Cliff Kupchan
Let's start with defining what "a nuclear Iran" means. This is a situation where Iran has installed 1,500 to 3,000 working P-1 centrifuges underground at the Natanz enrichment facility, making Iran able to obtain a working nuclear bomb within one year. Iran would not need to develop or explode an actual nuclear device; here, Iran would enjoy the benefits of "strategic ambiguity"-the world is aware that Iran could quickly obtain a weapon, but the country hasn't necessarily crossed any red lines. Many experts believe Iran could achieve this by late 2007 or early 2008.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the vast majority of Iranian elites are committed to acquiring nuclear capabilities. There is no sign of significant upper-level disagreement on nuclear policy, though the electorate rebuked Ahmadinejad, the most vocal proponent of an aggressive nuclear policy, in municipal council elections on December 15, 2006. His supporters received no more than 25 percent of the seats in any major city.

The central challenge facing the United States is how to deal with all this. Neither the UN nor direct talks are likely to help in stopping Iran. Resolution 1737, passed December 23, imposed but mild sanctions. Another resolution is possible, but Russian and Chinese opposition to harsh sanctions means the UN process is grinding to a halt. And while the United States should talk to the Iranians, let's be realistic-major gulfs separate Tehran and Washington, gulfs exacerbated by President Bush's announcement on January 10 that the United States will actively disrupt Iranian activities in Iraq. The United States would insist on a long-term suspension and want an effective veto over Iran's ability to resume enrichment; Iran would at best agree to a technical pause of several months and would want a major non-U.S.-dominated forum to decide when it had regained the international community's trust.

So the United States will try to isolate Iran economically. The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned two Iranian banks allegedly involved in illicit activities, seeking to cut off the banks' access to dollars and dollar-based trading, and to adversely affect the interests of groups affiliated with them. Washington is successfully encouraging foreign banks to follow suit and will probably sanction more Iranian banks. The United States is applying diplomatic pressure to foreign governments, banks and companies to curtail business with Iran, with some success. Washington has especially targeted Iran's oil sector, which accounts for 80 percent of export earnings, and has succeeded in diminishing foreign oil companies' activity in Iran and foreign lenders' willingness to finance new projects. In extending these efforts, Washington will likely attempt to form multilateral coalitions of the willing with G-7, EU and allied Gulf nations to sanction Iran jointly.

These efforts, however, are unlikely to induce a fundamental change of course. The reach of U.S. sanctions and pressure is significant but limited; Iran can trade in other currencies, and banks and oil companies from countries that don't support Washington or have exposure in the United States can step in. Many nations are likely to oppose harsh sanctions: Russia and China have strong economic interests in Iran, many members of the Non-Aligned Movement support Iran's position, Iran has leverage as a major exporter of oil and even major EU nations such as Germany have reservations about sanctions outside the UN. Coalitions of the willing will probably be undersubscribed.

Another option is to intimidate Tehran militarily. A second carrier battle group will arrive in the region in February 2007, Patriot missiles will be deployed in allied nations and the United States will disrupt Iranian activities in Iraq. This initiative is risky. It could lead to direct U.S.-Iranian hostilities in Iraq or contribute to an Iranian-Saudi proxy war, and it is likely to strengthen Iranian hard-liners.

So the United States probably faces a choice between deterring a nuclear Iran and taking military action. Iran poses challenges to deterrence-multiple sources of power, unpredictability and inconsistent behavior are all inimical to deterrence theory. Factionalism could lead to dysfunctional outcomes in nuclear debates, where not only Ahmadinejad, but also the radical head of the paramilitary Basij, Mohammad Hejazi, and hard-liner Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (Secretary General of the Guardian Council) may have a place at the table. Second, Ahmadinejad and his Abadgaran movement are risk-acceptant, which could pose specific challenges to deterrence. Under a nuclear shield, Tehran may more aggressively use Hizballah or other groups to attack Israel, or U.S. or foreign troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

But deterrence theory would probably, if problematically, apply. The supreme leader and many of his advisors are traditional conservatives with track records of pragmatic behavior-Khamenei did agree to suspend enrichment for two years. Iran's greatest vulnerability is its economic infrastructure, especially in the oil sector. Most of Iran's oil and gas fields lie in the southwest corner of the country, as do all six of its major export terminals. This would give deterrence a significant foothold. Finally, deterrence would mean strengthening the military capabilities of Sunni Arab governments to deter and withstand Iranian pressure. That means increasing military ties with authoritarian regimes that may lose domestic legitimacy in coming years.

The second option is military action-and if the United States does not act, the chance of unilateral Israeli action rises. The existential nature of the Iranian threat, Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and Israeli doubts about U.S. resolve make the chances of an Israeli strike not insignificant, especially if Iran quickly masters nuclear technology. And an Israeli decision would receive at least some U.S. support.

But the target set could be vast-in the many "tens" of sites. Primary targets would include the uranium conversion facility and stored uranium gas in Isfahan and the enrichment plant at Natanz. The rest of the targets are dispersed and hardened, with many perhaps unknown to Western intelligence. They include hardened centrifuge plants and probably hardened research and development facilities. Many Western experts believe the United States could set back the Iranian program roughly three to four years by hitting a wide target set-longer if Washington is willing to inflict multiple rounds of strikes.

The enormous risks here include the possibility that Iran would try to close the Strait of Hormuz and seriously destabilize Iraq. This is unlikely, as oil exports are Tehran's umbilical cord, and a failed state in Iraq is among Iran's worst nightmares. But retribution would include targeting of U.S. and Western troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon and possible attacks against Americans around the world.

Intermediate proposals exist, but their chances of success are slim. The International Crisis Group has proposed a three-stage plan: first, a two- to three-year suspension by Iran; second, a three- to four-year period during which Iran would have a very limited program with all enriched uranium stored outside the country; and third, indigenous production, using facilities owned by many nations. Unless Iran built a clandestine site, this plan would deny weapons capability for five to seven years. This is probably the best outcome the United States can hope for, but its time has likely passed. Iran won't suspend for that long, and the plan would allow Tehran to master nuclear technology-unacceptable to the United States.

Essay Types: Essay