Iran: The Logic of Deterrence

Article excerpt

[one war at a time]

Tehran's quest for nuclear weapons is a rational response to a real threat, which makes diplomacy a more prudent option than regime change.

AT THIS WRITING it is not known if the United Nations, when it receives the report of the International Atomic Energy Agency on the status of Iran's compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, will impose sanctions on Tehran or whether a last-minute diplomatic compromise will avert-at least for the time being-the need for punitive measures. Neither outcome, however, will bring about a definitive resolution of the deepening crisis between the U.S. and Iran. Washington and Tehran will remain on a collision course that could eventuate in military conflict.

The main source of conflict-or at least the one that has grabbed the lion's share of the headlines-is Tehran's evident determination to develop a nuclear-weapons program. Washington's policy, as President George W. Bush has stated on several occasions in language that recalls his pre-war stance on Iraq, is that a nuclear-armed Iran is "intolerable."

Beyond nuclear weapons, however, there are other important issues that are driving the U.S. and Iran toward an armed confrontation. Chief among these is Iraq. Recently, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, accused Tehran of meddling in Iraqi affairs by providing arms and training to Shi'ite militias and by currying favor with the Shi'ite politicians who will likely dominate Iraq's new elected government. With Iraq teetering on the brink of a civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis, concerns about Iranian interference have been magnified. In a real sense, however, Iran's nuclear program and role in Iraq are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Clashing interests and a tangled history have left the United States and Iran estranged for more than a quarter of a century. Since the 1940s, the U.S. has had important strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, a region where Iran sees itself as the dominant power. Iranians remember-and still resent-the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew the nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh because he threatened Anglo-American oil interests in Iran. Following the coup, during the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran aligned with the United States in the Cold War and served as America's strategic surrogate in the Persian Gulf. While the Shah's authoritarian regime served the U.S. geopolitically, the close American relationship with him boomeranged when he was overthrown in the 1978 Islamic Revolution. Washington's association with the Shah fanned widespread Iranian resentment against the U.S.

From the American standpoint, relations with Iran never have recovered from the crisis of 1979-1980, when Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held its staff hostage. The hostility between the United States and Iran and U.S. fear that Iran would export its Islamic Revolution were underscored during the Iran-Iraq War (1981-1988), when Washington tilted toward Baghdad and covertly aided Saddam Hussein's regime. From 1987 to 1988, American forces actually waged a low-intensity naval conflict against Iran, a consequence of which was the shoot-down of an Iranian civilian Airbus passenger jet by an American naval vessel, which heightened Iranian ire at the United States. Also contributing to American distrust of Iran are Tehran's longstanding support for Hamas and Hezbollah and its involvement in the attack on the Khobar Towers.

Since the Shah's overthrow, there have been several tentative attempts to thaw relations between Washington and Tehran. These have failed because domestic political considerations in both capitals prevented anything approaching détente-much less rapprochement. The rockiness in Washington's relations with Tehran long predated the Bush administration.

During the 1990s, however, Iran and the U.S. were not drifting toward war. …