It is time to clarify the debate over Iran and its nuclear program. It's easy to criticize the current course adopted by the United States and its allies, to huff and puff about Iranian mendacity, to point out that Russia and China won't agree to tougher measures against Tehran, and to detail the leaks in the sanctions already in place. But what, then, should the United States do? The critics are eager to denounce the administration from the sidelines for being weak but rarely detail what they would do to be "tough." Would they attack Iran today? If not, then what should we do? It is time to put up or shut up on Iran.
There are three basic options that the United States and its allies have regarding Iran's nuclear program. We can bomb Iran, engage it diplomatically, or contain and deter the threat it poses. Let me outline what each would entail and then explain why I favor containment and deterrence.
Iran's nuclear ambitions are a problem. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is a danger, and the Iranian regime's foreign policy—which has involved support for militias and terrorist groups—make it a destabilizing force in the region. The country has a right to civilian nuclear energy, as do all nations. But Tehran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, submitting itself to the jurisdiction of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA says Iran has exhibited a pattern of deception and non-cooperation involving its nuclear program for 20 years—including lying about its activities and concealing sites. In that context, it makes sense to be suspicious of Iran's intentions and to ask that the IAEA routinely verify and inspect its facilities. Unless that can be achieved, Iran should pay the price for its actions. Washington's current strategy is to muster international support to impose greater costs, while at the same time negotiating with Iran to find a solution that gives the world greater assurance that the Iranian program is purely civilian in nature.
It is an unsatisfying, frustrating approach. The Russians and Chinese want to trade with Iran and will not impose crippling sanctions. (Nor would India or Brazil, nor most other major developing countries.) Even if there were some resolution, it would depend on inspections in Iran, and the Iranians could probably hide things from the inspectors and cheat. They do occasionally make concessions, including significant ones last week—to open the newly revealed Qum facility to inspectors and to send uranium to Russia for enrichment (which Tehran announced just as columnists were declaring that negotiations were sure to lead to nothing). But there will be setbacks as well. The cat-and-mouse game will continue.
One way to get instant gratification would be military force. The United States or Israel could attack Iran from the air. To be effective, such an attack would have to be large-scale and sustained, probably involving dozens and dozens of sorties over several days. The campaign would need to strike at all known Iranian facilities as well as suspected ones. Such an attack would probably not get at everything. Iran's sites are buried in mountains, and there are surely some facilities that we do not know about. But it would deal a massive blow to the Iranian nuclear program.
The first thing that would happen the day after such an offensive begins would be a massive outpouring of support for the Iranian regime. This happens routinely when a country is attacked by foreign forces, no matter how unpopular the government. Germany invaded Russia at the height of Stalin's worst repression—and the country rallied behind Stalin. The Iranian regime itself was in deep trouble in 1980, facing internal dissension and mass dissatisfaction, when Saddam Hussein attacked, throwing a lifeline to the mullahs. Recall that George W. Bush's approval rating on Sept. 10, 2001, was about 40 percent. After 9/11, it quickly climbed to 93 percent. The -Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeini said to me, "If there were an attack, all of us would have to come out the next day and support the government. It would be the worst scenario for the opposition." Last week opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi warned that tightening sanctions would hurt ordinary people and turn them against the United States, not the regime.
The Iranians would respond in the wake of such an attack. In fact, they have probably been preparing a series of "asymmetrical" measures, which would involve activating militias they fund and arm in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps also in Lebanon and Gaza. Those who argue that Iran is a sinister and powerful force manipulating terror groups across the region have to accept that Tehran will then be able to raise the temperature everywhere it has influence. I don't actually believe Iran is all that powerful, but it does have its allies, and they will almost certainly destabilize parts of Afghanistan and Iraq, which will mean a higher death toll for American soldiers and a political setback in those countries.
Then there is the political fallout. The reaction of the "Arab street" is often exaggerated, but an American or Israeli military attack would clearly put pro-American forces on the defensive in the Islamic world, delight groups like Hamas, Hizbullah, and the Muslim Brotherhood, and give terrorists a great new recruiting tool. Whatever the explanations offered by Washington, this would be the third Muslim country that America would have invaded in the eight years since 9/11, something that could easily be construed as a pattern.
The gain from an attack, on the other hand, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates points out, would be to delay, not end, the Iranian program, perhaps by a few years but no more. The regime has oil money, and with heightened national support and resolve, it could quickly rebuild most of its facilities. That's why the military option is just not worth the costs. And pretending that we are going to attack, when it is not a real option, is a hollow threat. You can posture as a columnist but not as the president of the United States.
There is an entirely different approach that some have advocated for a while. This strategy—engagement—is rooted in the belief that the United States has never really understood Iran's concerns and never negotiated in good faith with the regime. It argues that Iranians have legitimate security fears: there are tens of thousands of U.S. troops on either side of its border; Washington makes no secret of its desire for regime change; the CIA funds groups seeking to overthrow the government; and so on. When Iran has made gestures, such as suspending nuclear enrichment for two years, Washington has not reciprocated. American support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War remains a source of justifiable bitterness among Iran's leaders, many of whom fought in that conflict.
So, the feeling goes, Washington needs to make a much more active effort to engage the Iranians, listening and responding to their concerns, allaying their suspicions, ending "regime change" policies and offering the real prospect of recognition to the Islamic Republic and normal relations with the United States. If we lessen their fears and concerns, in this view, Tehran's leaders will be more likely to cooperate on the nuclear front.
There is something to this line of thinking. The Iranians do have some legitimate security concerns. They live in a neighborhood surrounded by nuclear powers—Israel, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. The Bush administration did needlessly alienate Iran right after Tehran had cooperated with Washington to oust the Taliban and set up the Karzai government in Kabul. And it ignored any gestures or concessions made by the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, further undermining an already weak president.
But the fundamental analysis is flawed. I do not believe the Iranian regime, at its core, wants normalized relations with America. Isolation from the West and hostility toward the United States are fundamental pillars that prop up the current regime—the reason that this system of government came into being and what sustains it every day. This is not simply a matter of ideology— though that is important—but economics. Those who rule in Tehran have created a closed, oligarchic economy that channels the country's oil revenues into the coffers of its religious foundations (for compliant clerics) and the increasingly powerful Revolutionary Guard. They benefit from a closed economy that they can manipulate. An opening to the world, which would mean more trade, commerce, and contact with the United States, would strengthen Iran's civil society, its trading class, its students, its bourgeoisie, and thus strengthen opposition to the regime.
The rulers of Iran do not want to open up to the world, except on their terms and in targeted ways that increase their own wealth and power. People sometimes speak about a "China option" for Iran, in which Tehran would engage the world economically but remain politically repressive. But China genuinely opened up its economy and society to the outside world and brought market forces to bear, empowering new groups and creating a large economy outside the purview of the government. What Iran probably seeks out of this engagement is a "Russia option," in which the regime gains greater wealth and power by trading with the West, but retains a viselike control over Iran's economy and society.
The United States has apologized for its role in the 1953 coup; it has reached out to Iran; it has offered wide-open talks. Each time, Iran has rebuffed the outstretched hand, claiming that the timing was bad, or the words used were wrong, or the offer wasn't big enough. If it is true that Washington has been wary of simply getting into talks with Tehran, the reverse is more evidently true. And until the government of Iran makes a decision that it is interested in a rapprochement, no set of words or gestures, however clever, is going to break the logjam. If Mao had not wanted to break with the Soviet Union and make peace with the United States, Ping-Pong diplomacy and even Henry Kissinger's negotiating prowess would not have produced the breakthrough of 1972.
So what does that leave? In fact, we are already moving toward a robust, workable response to the dangers of an Iranian nuclear program—one that involves sustained containment and deterrence. Iran's rise has aroused suspicion in the Arab world. Many countries in the region are developing closer ties with the United States, including military ones. In the West, European nations worry about nuclear proliferation and are irritated with Iran's deception and obstructionism. They have gotten tougher over the years in combating Iran and its proxies, and they are getting tougher at implementing some of the financial sanctions that target Iran's elites. Even Russia and China, which have tried to maintain their ties with Iran, are conscious that they cannot be seen to be utterly unconcerned about proliferation and the defiance of U.N. resolutions. So they've allowed for some actions against the Iranian regime (and according to some reports were critical to the outcome of last week's talks in Geneva).
All this means that Iran has become something of an international pariah, unable to operate with great latitude around the world. The country is in a box and, if well handled, can be kept there until the regime becomes much more transparent and cooperative on the nuclear issue. To do so, we should maintain the current sanctions but should not add broad new ones like an embargo on refined-gasoline imports. Any new measures should target the leadership and factions like the Revolutionary Guards specifically. And we should think more broadly about other ways to pressure the regime. There should be a structure within which those countries that are worried about the threat posed by Iran can meet and strategize. We should work to further align the interests of moderate Arab states with those of Israel, which could be one of the strategic boons of the circumstance. It's clear that Iran fears this potential alliance, which is why Ahmadinejad has worked so hard to present himself as the chief spokesman for the great Arab cause of Palestine. By spouting his nonsense about the Holocaust and professing his support for the Palestinians, he's trying to make it harder for leaders in Saudi Arabia to effectively take Israel's side in opposition to Tehran.
At the same time, we must stop exaggerating the Iranian threat. By hyping it, we only provide Iran with "free power," in Leslie Gelb's apt phrase. This is an insecure Third World country with a GDP that is one 40th the size of America's, a dysfunctional economy, a divided political class, and a government facing mass unrest at home. It has alienated most of its neighboring states and cuts a sorry figure on the world stage, with an international embarrassment for a president. Its forays in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Gaza have had mixed results, with the locals often growing weary of the Iranian thugs who try to control them.
The country does not yet have even one nuclear weapon, and if and when it gets one—something that is far from certain—the world will not end. The Middle East has been home to nuclear weapons for decades. If Israel's estimated -arsenal of 200 warheads, including a "second-strike capacity," has not prompted Egypt to develop its own nukes, it's not clear that one Iranian bomb would do so. (Recall that Egypt has fought and lost three wars against Israel, so it should be far more concerned about an Israeli bomb than an Iranian one.) More crucially, Israel's massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon. Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran. The Iranian regime has amply demonstrated over the past four months that it is interested in hanging on to power at all costs, jailing mullahs and ignoring its own clerical elite. These are not the actions of religious rulers about to commit mass suicide.
We should not fear to negotiate with these rulers. We talked to the Soviet Union even as we implemented a far more extensive policy of containment toward Moscow. But talks should not involve a final normalization or sanctification of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Unless there is a Gorbachev-like reversal of Iran's basic approach to the world—a Persian glasnost and perestroika—there should be no reciprocal integration into the Western world.
The ultimate solution to the problem of Iran will lie in an Iranian regime that understands it has much to gain from embracing the modern world. That doesn't mean Iran would forswear its efforts to be a regional power—all the losing presidential candidates in Iran endorsed the country's nuclear program—but it does mean that Iran would be more willing to be open and transparent, and to demonstrate its peaceful intentions. It would view trade and contact with the West as a virtue, not a threat. It would return Iran to its historic role as a crossroads of commerce and capitalism, as one of the most sophisticated trading states in history, and a place where cultures mingled to produce dazzling art, architecture, poetry, and prose. This Iran would have its issues with the West, but it would not be a rogue regime, funding terrorists and secretly breaking its international agreements.
Can the West do anything to help the current regime evolve into something more open, modern, and democratic? The change has to come from within—I am not a big believer in the idea that direct American actions can magically promote reform within Iran. But we should not do anything to preclude internal evolution or more dramatic change in that country. The country is clearly deeply divided, and these divisions are not going to disappear. The British intellectual Timothy Garton Ash, who chronicled the velvet revolutions of 1989, notes that "there is a physics of diplomacy, but there is also a chemistry of politics. And ultimately, it is the chemistry of politics inside Iran, the actions and reactions within that country, that could surprise us all." One day, Iran could well take its place as a dynamic country with a regime that wants to live in the modern world. Until then, we should pursue a strategy toward the Iranian regime that preserves a cold peace.