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

Iran's nuclear program has a full head of steam, but there's time for the United States to use sanctions and creative diplomacy. While there's only a chance of success, Washington must play it to the hilt.

Cliff Kupchan is director, Europe and Eurasia, at the Eurasia Group.

Joel Rosenthal
Should U.S. policymakers just let the clock run out on the Iranian regime? Last December's election for the municipal council and religious assembly saw reformers win heavy support. This has compounded the deep split within the Iranian body politic and increases the likelihood that Supreme Leader Khamenei and his entourage (including former President Rafsanjani) will further limit President Ahmadinejad's actions.

Iran is not an aspiring superpower. It has political and economic liabilities. Politically, standoffs with the United States (over the nuclear program and Iraq) and Israel (over Iran's support of Hizballah during the Lebanon conflict) pose problems on the world stage. Economically, high unemployment and foreign investors, reluctant due to regional instability, pose problems. Furthermore, high oil prices are causing massive problems for the non-oil economy while furnishing revenues for a government that may not be able to revitalize the economy, but can buy off much of the immediate discontent. If history is any guide, Iran will enter a major economic downturn in two to three years.

The "nuclear crisis" has been of great benefit to Ahmadinejad, enabling him to rally nationalist sentiment and divert attention from electoral losses. His administration promised, but has failed, to tackle pressing domestic issues; Ahmadinejad was elected on a platform of combating corruption and providing more opportunities for ordinary Iranians. Without inoculation from the nuclear confrontation, the regime would face a crisis in the next three to five years, as its liabilities caught up with it. Moreover, the government will be unable to provide jobs for the "youth bulge", failing to fulfill its platform.

The United States should focus on regime change from within while remaining wary of overplaying its hand. Iranian reformers would get into a lot of trouble if the government discovered they were getting checks from the United States. The United States wants regime change but may well have to accept that democracy gives people the option to change regimes, but does not mandate such a change. As a result, the United States will have to be much less confrontational. Why shouldn't we be "buying time" to put the regime back on schedule for internal transformation through domestic pressures that would solve the problem without war?

Joel Rosenthal is president of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Gideon Rose
Iran's attempt to acquire a nuclear weapons capability is deeply problematic. If successful, it will threaten the interests of the United States and its allies, lead to arms racing and instability throughout the Middle East, and rip more holes in the already-tattered global non-proliferation regime. Given the obvious risks, it is depressing how many take Iran's actions in stride and, in some cases, even enable them. Every country concerned about terrorism, non-proliferation or Middle Eastern security should be searching for ways to head off the danger.

If the problem is serious, however, it is not the world-historical crisis some alarmists claim. When the Iranian nuclear program will reach its goals is unclear, and much can happen in the interim. Tehran's motivations appear to be at least as much defensive as they are offensive, so even if it gets the bomb, an unprovoked Iranian nuclear strike is highly unlikely. There is little reason to think Iranian leaders are suicidal, so American and Israeli arsenals should deter a nuclear exchange. And the risks of exposure and retaliation should reduce the likelihood of the regime handing off nukes to terrorists or other non-state actors. Given all this, I think the least bad approach to the situation is containment-a coordinated effort to put pressure on Iran and make clear the current path could make Tehran an international pariah.

Some will say that such a course runs unacceptable risks and that the only sure way to deal with the situation is to strike now before the cancer metastasizes. Yet preventive war has a deservedly bad reputation. Containment, in contrast, deserves more respect than it gets, since it has been quite good over the years at managing risks at acceptable costs. The danger Iran poses may be real, but it is far less than the dangers that were posed by, say, the Soviet Union or Mao's China-and in both of those cases the United States managed to outwit, outlast and outplay its rival. It did so by, among other things, keeping its head, rejecting suggestions to strike first and relying on time to reveal its own system's strengths and its opponents' weaknesses.

The reason so many in Washington have forgotten this is not because Iran is uniquely terrifying, but because the United States is uniquely powerful. Only now that it is a global hegemon can it calmly consider an unprovoked strike against a substantial regional power, simply because it worries about what that power might do with the weapons it might eventually acquire. The whole discussion is a sobering reminder that America's foreign policy faces two separate challenges: managing the world and managing itself.

Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, is a former assistant editor of The National Interest.

Richard K. Betts
An Iran with nuclear weapons should certainly make everyone nervous. But what to do depends on the balance of risks between inaction (apart from containment, deterrence and sanctions) and action. As the calamitous results of adventurism in Iraq show, the latter's risks are high. Anyone who beats the drum for war against Iran fits the classic definition of a fanatic-one who redoubles his effort as he loses sight of his goal.

Iran has ambitions and has been on a roll (especially since the United States handed it an entrée to Iraq). But it is easy to forget that the Iranian nuclear threat looks big today only by default-in the post-Cold War world there are no truly hefty threats to U.S. survival, so lesser ones fill the vacuum. During the Cold War we lived for decades with far more potent challenges. Until the rapprochement of the 1970s, China especially seemed wilder and crazier than the ayatollahs' Tehran. The Cultural Revolution showed a government gone mad. China had fought a war against us in Korea and came close to war again in two Taiwan Strait crises. Mao Zedong sounded terrifyingly divorced from reality when speaking of how China could absorb hundreds of millions of casualties in a nuclear war and come out ahead by virtue of its surplus population. We have yet to hear anything that chilling from Ahmadinejad.

We not only managed to live with Mao's finger on the nuclear button, but Nixon turned the Chinese threat into an asset through the diplomatic coup that aligned Washington and Beijing against Moscow. Rapprochement may not be in the cards today, but the underlying potential for it in Iran's domestic politics is more promising than it seemed in China in the 1960s, at least if we do not inflame Iranian opinion by attacking.

Focusing on Iran distracts attention from more worrisome dangers. North Korea-which has already tested and begun stocking up on nuclear weapons and is ruled by a regime weirder than Tehran's-should be higher on the list. Even in Iran's part of the world, Pakistan should worry us more. Indeed, Pakistan may harbor the greatest potential danger of all: Chances of a coup or revolution deposing the Musharraf regime and installing pro-Taliban Islamists are not trivial. If that happened, Al-Qaeda's chances of gaining access to nuclear weapons would zoom up overnight. The Shi‘a of Iran are the least likely to share WMD with the Sunni jihadists who have been their bitter enemies.

No one should be nonchalant about Iran getting nuclear weapons, just as no one wanted them in the hands of Stalin or Mao. But that sentiment tells us nothing about what we should do to prevent it from happening. Today, neoconservatives view hesitancy to attack Iran as timorous and un-Churchillian. Their logic echoes that of radical strategists decades ago. Fears of aggression by a strengthened Stalin generated proposals for preventive war in the 1950s and similar proposals to deal with China in the 1960s. In both cases American leaders decided that the risk of relying on deterrence and containment was the lesser evil. Would any sober person say those decisions were weak-kneed and wrong?

We spend most of our time focusing on what can be done to stop Iran. Well and good, if we find a way. But even leaving aside the further alienation of the Muslim world a U.S. assault would bring, there is no evidence that an air attack would crimp Iran's nuclear capabilities for more than a few years, while energizing leaders to rebuild and strike back. (We have given Tehran ample warning to hide important elements of the necessary infrastructure.) The only military option that would reliably prevent acquisition of nuclear weapons-invasion and indefinite occupation-is out of the question.

Essay Types: Essay