Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Dealing with Iran

Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Dealing with Iran

Article excerpt

It seems to be an open-and-shut case. Nuclear weapons are bad. It's best for the world if no more countries acquire nuclear weapons. Iran is currently engaged in uranium enrichment that could eventually produce a nuclear weapon. It built a secret facility to advance this program and might now be building another one. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government makes all sorts of threatening statements about Israel, the United States, the West. We should therefore do everything possible to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

This is the script that the Obama administration is following. It has taken up where the Bush administration left off by pursuing stronger economic sanctions against Iran - and twisting the arms of allies like South Korea to follow suit - while continuing to hold out for the possibility of negotiations. There are murmurs of a preemptive military strike by Israel, which 51 percent of Americans believe the U.S. government should support. The Pentagon maintains that "all options are on the table."

So will this script inevitably lead to war, with Iran bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and the United States and its allies equally determined to do everything possible to prevent this from happening?

War is not inevitable. It's not even likely. But to understand why, it's important to work our way through the script to see where the story stops making sense.

Let's start with the latest news, that Iran is building a secret facility near Qazvin to evade International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring. The information comes from a rarely reliable Iranian dissident organization, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which remains on the U.S. terrorism list. Indeed, according to one U.S. official, "This facility has been under construction for years, and we've known about it for years. While there's still some ambiguity about its ultimate purpose - not unusual for something that's still taking shape - there's no reason at this point to think it's nuclear."

But Iran built a secret facility near Qom, which the United States, France, and Britain revealed in 2009, so why shouldn't we assume the worst? The Iranian government was clearly up to something, but there was considerable disagreement about when it began building the facility and what its ultimate purpose was. Iran subsequently opened up the facility to UN inspectors. This two-track policy of above-board facilities and secret installations suggests that the Iranian government does not have a unified approach (just as Congress, the Pentagon, the Department of Energy, the arms control community, and so on have different takes on the U.S. nuclear complex).

In fact, it's not even clear that Iran even intends to develop a nuclear weapon, given the negative consequences that forcing its way into the nuclear club could generate. Some analysts, like Juan Cole, believe that Iran simply wants what Japan has: non-nuclear status, a robust civilian nuclear program, and the ability to become nuclear within a relatively short period of time if necessary. This might be a fallback option for Iran, Joshua Pollack of Arms Control Wonk told me in a phone conversation, but it's not easy to discern a consensus position inside Iran. "It's hard to assess who is making the decisions on a daily basis," he says. Ahmadinejad, for instance, is something of a moderate on the nuclear issue, given his willingness to negotiate, but he is often vetoed by the top religious authorities.

Perhaps since we don't understand Iran's intentions, it's best simply to impose U.S. economic sanctions to dissuade the leadership from pushing any further with uranium enrichment. But the problem with this option is that the sanctions do little against the Iranian elites and instead punish the general population. This "rally around the flag" effect only encourages more popular support for the Ahmadinejad regime. Even the remnants of the reformist Green Movement have come to the difficult conclusion that the current regime enjoys substantial support in the country, particularly among the poorer classes, which are hardest hit by sanctions. …

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