Assuming that Iran indeed seeks a nuclear weapons capacity (inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who continue to monitor Iran’s uranium enrichment program on the ground, have yet to find compelling evidence that it does), what’s the best policy of deterring it from developing a bomb, short of war?
Israel, the United States and their allies appear to have adopted a policy of containment. Economic sanctions against Iran, including a Western oil embargo, are meant to persuade it to give up its nuclear ambitions but have only led the Iranians to intensify their rhetoric and possibly embolden their designs.
Containment was a proper response to the threat of Soviet expansionism during the Cold War but cannot work with Iran because it is a far inferior actor than Russia was. Tehran doesn’t have the ability, nor necessarily the intention, Moscow had to spread its ideology and build an alliance of socialist client states. Iran’s leaders may speak of spreading the Islamic revolution but their orbit is regional not global.
American foreign policy, by contrast, has a global reach. Its Iran policy is part of a bigger strategic vision (or should be). Iran’s focus is narrower. Because of its sheer size and the fact that it is surrounded by countries that are hostile to its aims, Iran couldn’t even begin to pose the sort of challenge to American superpower that the Soviet Union did.
For this reason, there cannot be the specter of mutually assured destruction either if Iran builds a nuclear weapon. There is not, and will not, be parity between Iran and the West, whether in terms of a conventional or nuclear weapons capacity.
An international intervention in Syria, Iran’s only regional ally, currently engaged in civil war, could be interpreted as an attempt at rollback in Tehran. Without Syrian support, it would be isolated in the region as a state and have to resort to alliances with nonstate actors, including Hezbollah, which may be more than a nuisance to Israel but hardly poses the sort of security threat that a hostile regime in Damascus is able to convey.
At the other end of the spectrum is appeasement. Anyone who advocates for it invites ridicule for historical precedents are uninspiring. But it’s a policy that’s worth considering if it addresses the Iranian sense of insecurity which is probably at the heart of its aspirations.
Why does Iran seek a nuclear weapons capacity, if indeed it does? Part of the rationale is to be found in the 1953 coup d’état which replaced the democratically-elected government of Iran with a monarchy that was supported by the West. Today’s regime still suspects that Western intelligence services are plotting to dismantle it. The recent assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists can have only enforced the sense that Iran is vulnerable to foreign intervention.
This fear was greatly exacerbated in the last decade by the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, both Iranian neighbors. Tehran was declared part of an “axis of evil” that risked military intervention unless it severed its ties with terrorists.
In response to both wars, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program, hoping to stave off military action. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction to speak of. North Korea, by contrast, continued its efforts unabated.
From the Iranian perspective, it seems as though anti-American regimes that refuse to budge under pressure survive whereas leaders that dwindle are toppled anyway.
A nuclear weapons capacity — the ability to quickly build a bomb and menace Israel — would be the best guarantee of guarding Iranian sovereignty. It’s a perception that has been shaped by American policy and reinforced in recent months by the warmongering rhetoric of national-security hawks in the United States who are openly calling for Iranian regime change.
A policy of appeasement would allow Iran to build what it says it wants — a nuclear energy industry — under international supervision. It would let Iran attain the capacity to build an atomic weapon if not the freedom to construct a number of rudimentary nuclear devices. Pyongyang likely possesses several and it hasn’t significantly changed North Korean behavior because South Korea, Japan and the United States are so much more powerful. Similarly, if Iran were ever to deploy a nuclear weapon, it would invite retaliation on such a destructive scale it might as well be signing its own death warrant.
The United States, moreover, could provide additional balance by putting nuclear weapons on Saudi Arabian soil. Tactical nuclear weapons are stored in Turkey and can be used by Turkey if it is ever attacked by a non-NATO country. A similar arrangement with the Saudis or the Gulf Cooperation Council at large would deter Iran from using the threat of nuclear attack to expand its influence across the Persian Gulf.
In conclusion, let’s not pretend that the world cannot tolerate an Iranian bomb. We can live with a nuclear Pakistan. We can live with a nuclear North Korea. Neither country is particularly stable. Indeed, the Iranian regime may be firmer in place than its counterparts in Islamabad and Pyongyang are.
Accommodation of these countries may not be desirable from a moral point of view but it is almost certain to prevent war or the further erosion of American prestige if, after declaring “all options on the table,” the Obama Administration isn’t willing to follow up on its threats with military action. Peace for our time!