Iran: Rethinking the Endgame

February 3, 2014 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Region: Iran

Iran: Rethinking the Endgame

Mistrust but verify.


It is with no small amount of trepidation that US and EU negotiators gear up for new talks on a final nuclear deal with Iran later this month. Fierce US congressional criticism of the “5+1” nuclear deal with Iran is missing the point, and promise, of an accord. One need not buy President Rouhani’s self-serving assertion in Davos recently of Iran’s “priority to constructively engage the world” to see that there is more at play than implementation of the nuclear accord.

All would be well advised to take a wider angle view of Iran. Consider this: Even with an acceptable final nuclear deal, if Iran’s regional behavior remains otherwise unaltered (as in the Syria chemical-weapons disposal deal), the core problem of Iran’s Persian/Shia imperial quest to dominate the region by any means necessary remains unmitigated. How much of the strategic problem is really solved? Yet a rabid segment in Congress seeks still more sanctions, aiming at complete abolition of Iran’s enrichment program—a desirable but highly implausible objective. Having spent billions for the program, and endured many multiples of that sum in lost revenue due to sanctions crippling its economy, Iran is unlikely to give up enrichment entirely. None of that trumps national pride.


The outcome which Iran can swallow probably resembles the “Japan option,” i.e., permissible fuel-cycle activity providing a latent nuclear capability but putting in place a status quo falling well short of nuclear-weapons development. That would mean no more than 5 percent enrichment and a limited amount of centrifuges, shutting down the Fordo plant, shutting down the Arak heavy-water plant (or at least converting to a light-water reactor), and shipping out to a third country or neutralizing all of its 20 percent enriched uranium. An outcome in which Tehran genuinely implements the IAEA additional protocol, and provides ample transparency enabling early warning of a breakout push towards nuclear weaponization—that will be about as good as it gets.

To be sure, the only explanation for Iran’s nuclear behavior and cat-and-mouse games with the IAEA (well-documented in IAEA reports) is a desire for more than just civil nuclear capabilities. And while Iran’s claim of an inherent “right to enrich” is contrived, the NPT does says that parties have an “inalienable right” to develop “research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” Indeed, not only Japan, but Argentina, Brazil and several European nations—fourteen in all—engage in fuel-cycle activities. So Iran has a point. But it is their intentions that are suspect—a long track record of dubious behavior documented in a decade’s worth of IAEA reports underscores that point. Fully transparency is part of the answer.

Yet if Iran’s behavior outside of the deal remains in place and unchanged; if (in other words) it remains a Cause as much as a Nation-State, how much will be gained? Tehran’s intentions would rightfully continue to be just as suspect. Let’s assume an Iran which has become a ‘virtual nuclear state’ like Japan but which continues to foment trouble from Lebanon to Central Asia. Better to aim at an Iran which cooperates in the management of the transition in Afghanistan, acts to moderate rather than instigate mayhem in Iraq, and joins in counternarcotics efforts.

Is this naïve or even far-fetched? Prior to 1979, Iran had been a key pillar of US policy in the Gulf. After that pivotal year, it faced Iraqi aggression, saw its civic and economic life crippled by ignorant clerics, and has now fallen to a place where it produces less oil than Texas. Sanctions have choked foreign investment and made ordinary daily finances an ordeal. Two-thirds of its citizens are under thirty; jobs are few and far between. The brain drain since 1979 continues, and now a third post-revolutionary generation rejects the nonsense and cries out for normalcy. Sanctions have done their job, up to this point.

Piling on more sanctions however, oblivious of altered circumstances, makes nonsense of sanctions’ stated aim: altered behavior. The catalogue of stagnation and exhaustion brought Rouhani his stunning electoral win. Like economic reformers in China (who ironically got underway in 1979) , Rouhani seems to be basing his regime on more on performance than Islamic correctness and on improving people’s lives.

This suggests a different calculus, one to which the nay-sayers in Congress remain obdurately oblivious. If economic improvement and the stability on which it depends have an uppermost place in Rouhani’s calculations, then an Iraq in turmoil has less appeal. And Tehran has little wish to see Sunni zealots prevail in Afghanistan after the US departs this year.

In parallel with the nuclear diplomacy, a quiet parallel effort to test Iranian intentions gives an extra dimension to the nuclear issue. Proud countries do not turn on a dime just because America wants them to—but demonstrable cooperation on Afghanistan, Syria, counternarcotics and counterterrorism (and, dare we add, Iraq) offer a real metric. Elsewhere, and down the road, one could envisage Tehran pledging to respect any decision made by the Palestinians about their future—rather than seeking to obstruct it.

There’s another reason why we should think hard about these prospects. The pseudo-state system, unhappily grafted on the region after the Sykes-Picot agreement carved up the Ottoman Empire, is unraveling. By comparison, Persia’s historic civilization and identity appear much more durable. We should strive for gradual, action-for-action transactional rapprochement with this country, an erstwhile US partner. While the interplay of overlapping US/Iranian interests fell into abeyance after 1979, mutual geopolitical interests, mainly involving balance and stability, remain pretty much as they were.

It’s time to revive this interplay, even with a regime we find distasteful. The skeptics of this approach see an Iran only ready to pocket Western concessions and continue a reckless quest for regional dominance. They could well be right. If they are, it means that President Rouhani cannot come close to achieving his mandate of making life in Iran more tolerable, of having (for example) such basics as the use of credit cards and a chance to pull in the huge investments needed to modernize its oil and gas sector. The usual political games can’t coexist beside these aims.

For electoral reasons, Congressional skeptics love making bellicose noises. Ritualistically, President Obama also leaves the “military option on the table.” But military strikes will not destroy Iran’s nuclear program, and may only set it back a year or two. Knowledge of nuclear weapons cannot be “uninvented.” The so-called “military solution” will simply confirm arguments within Iran that only a full-fledged nuclear-weapons capability will keep attackers at bay. An attack would probably result in Iran’s withdrawal from the NPT, thereby removing the hook for diplomacy. The Iranians would bury their facilities still deeper—and they already have in place some of the world’s toughest, strongest steel and special concrete bunkers. Never mind an attack’s impact on world oil prices and the world economy.

As a variant of Ronald Reagan’s adage, we should “mistrust but verify” when dealing with the Rouhani government. Up to now, sanctions have inexorably turned the rack, but it’s now a moment for statesmanship. Sure, it’s easier to pile on, condemning Iran’s nefarious ways, but we would be idiots to deny the existence of occasional inflection points in history, places of time and circumstance when patterns of behavior shift. We should test the proposition that Iran has become concerned enough about its internal failings, and about regional turmoil, to alter its behavior.

Robert A. Manning is a senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security and formerly served on the State Dept. Policy Planning staff and National Intelligence Council (NIC); James Clad is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. Both served in the George W. Bush administration.