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

Of course we should do what we can, within reasonable risk, to stop Iran. Other carrots and sticks need more attention, but even a better set may not succeed. We need to focus more on how to cope if Iran fields the weapons. This means figuring out the limits of our political demands, and what we could give as well as get, to negotiate a modus vivendi. Other cases remind us that some tough strategic challenges must be managed until conditions make them tractable. We can do worse than taking guidance from the Cold War experiences of containment and deterrence.

Richard K. Betts is director of Columbia University's Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

Ian Bremmer
It's not clear to me that the Iranians would engage the United States if the Bush Administration offered, which is itself highly unlikely. Ahmadinejad and his domestic allies believe Iran has growing influence in the region and an improving geopolitical position. In November, I heard a speech from Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, at the Arab Strategy Forum in Dubai. He was more assertive and self-confident than I've ever seen him. He said Iran wouldn't talk with the United States until the White House announced a complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq. He invited other Middle Eastern states to join Iran in a regional security organization that excludes the United States and called on Arab governments to develop nuclear programs to facilitate a nuclear OPEC.

There's an awful lot of posturing here, and that's a big part of the problem. The Iranian president clearly believes that he wins support at home by taking a harder-line position on the nuclear program. There's broad agreement across the population and among the elites that a nuclear program is good and that the country has the right to develop one. But Iran isn't a totalitarian state like North Korea. There's real opposition in the country to other elements of Ahmadinejad's political agenda. We've seen that from Iranian journalists who bluntly challenge his economic policy during press conferences and in the student protests that disrupted one of his recent speeches and ended up on Al-Jazeera. We see it in the results of the recent municipal elections. The real challenge for the Bush Administration is to develop a more nuanced and moderate approach, one that stops feeding Ahmadinejad new opportunities to play the defiant champion of resistance to the United States-but without surrendering to his hard-line position.

Fostering opposition in Iran is about getting out of the way so Ahmadinejad's rivals can change the political subject and focus on the president's weaknesses, particularly economic mismanagement. So the United States should stop talking up the military option; sending another carrier into the region only feeds the problem and allows Ahmadinejad to dominate the conversation within the country. The United States should speak much more softly. That approach would not only make it harder for Ahmadinejad to whip up support against the West at home and on the international stage, it would help relieve upward pressure on oil prices, depriving the Iranian government of some of the revenue it uses to consolidate its position and stave off domestic criticism. (The relatively mild tone of Bush's speech at the General Assembly last fall accomplished that, especially since jittery markets were expecting something much more incendiary.)

As for oil markets, if the Saudis overproduce for six to twelve months to bring some spare capacity on line, that would put pressure on Ahmadinejad's government. The Saudis could balk at that suggestion. If they do, the United States can remind them that the eventual alternative may well be military action against Iran. No one, including the Saudis, really wants that. They certainly don't want a nuclear Iran, but they really don't want the risks and uncertainty that would come with more military action in the region.

At the same time, the United States should use targeted leverage to directly punish the Iranian regime. Washington has really irritated the North Koreans by tracking and freezing regime assets in Macau, their top priority prior to six-party talks. To the extent that the Treasury Department can do much the same thing with individuals directly involved in Iran's nuclear program-and folks at the State Department believe it could make a difference-they should press ahead with European allies, Japan and others. And they should target financial transactions at chokepoints like Dubai, where Iran does so much of its banking.

Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group and a contributing editor to The National Interest.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev
Policymakers have to face the cold, harsh reality that any course of action vis-à-vis Iran is risky and will hurt some key U.S. foreign policy priorities. There is no "cost-free" solution.

To what extent would the ayatollahs agree with Hans Morgenthau's contention, "The individual may say for himself: ‘Fiat justitia, pereat mundus' (Let justice be done, even if the world perish), but the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care"? Without a definitive answer, it is difficult to evaluate whether traditional stimuli (sanctions, deterrence and so on) for changing regime behavior will work.

And is the price for certain resolution (say, a certifiable de-nuclearization via regime change) higher or lower than that of living with an ambiguous and dissatisfying status quo? For the last decade, India and Pakistan have grappled with everything from the role their nuclear arsenals should play in relationship to their conventional forces, to the ongoing fighting in Kashmir, to the extent to which a government in Islamabad is responsible for terrorist groups operating inside of India. Infiltrators coming across the Line of Control and dueling artillery barrages seem tolerable annoyances that do not risk an escalation that could result in a nuclear exchange-but does the nuclear stalemate mean that a large-scale attack in Mumbai or against senior government officials would similarly be tolerated? We saw how Hizballah poorly predicted Israel's response to the kidnapping of their soldiers and small-scale rocket attacks last summer.

But what should most concern us is solving the Iran question "by default"-which is where it seems we are headed. In this scenario, our inability to set priorities and assess costs leads to the worst of all possible worlds: a nuclear-capable Iran unencumbered by regional security architecture, a series of informal arrangements setting out redlines on issues such as terrorism (similar to the China-Taiwan precedent) or greater steps toward energy independence and diversification.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.

Essay Types: Essay