ANALYSIS PAPER Number 20, June 2009
Which Path to Persia?
options for a New american strategy toward iran
Kenneth M. Pollack Daniel L. Byman Martin indyk suzanne Maloney Michael e. o’hanlon Bruce riedel
Which Path to Persia? Options for a New Ameri- can Strategy toward Iran is a product of the Sa- ban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brook- ings Institution. e essays were written by Saban Center scholars Daniel L. Byman, Martin Indyk, Suzanne Maloney, Michael E. O’Hanlon, Kenneth M. Pollack, and Bruce Riedel. Kenneth Pollack also served as the overall editor.
None of the ideas expressed in this volume should be construed as representing the views of any of the individual authors. e collection is a collaborative e ort, and the authors attempt- ed to present each of the options as objectively as possible, without introducing their own subjec-
tive opinions about them. e aim of this exercise was to highlight the challenges of all the options and to allow readers to decide for themselves which they believe to be best.
All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis ex- pressed are those of the authors and do not re- ect the o cial positions or views of the CIA or any other U.S. Government Agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or Agency endorsement of the au- thors’ views. is material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classi ed in- formation.
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e authors are deeply grateful for the nancial assistance from the smith richardson Foundation, the crown Family Foundation, and oth- ers in the dra ing and publication of this study.
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Kenneth M. Pollack
Kenneth Pollack is Director of research at the sa- ban center for Middle east Policy at Brookings. he served as Director for Persian Gulf a airs and Near east and south asian a airs at the Na- tional security council, senior research Profes- sor at National Defense University, and Persian Gulf military analyst at the cia. his latest book is A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East (random house). he is also the author of e Persian Puzzle: e Con- ict between Iran and America (random house), e reatening Storm: e Case for Invading Iraq (random house), and Arabs at War: Military Ef- fectiveness, 1948-1991 (University of Nebraska Press).
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel Byman is a senior Fellow at the saban cen- ter at Brookings. he is Director of the center for Peace and security studies and an associate Pro- fessor in the school of Foreign service at George- town University. he has held positions with the National commission on terrorist attacks on the United states (the “9/11 commission”), the Joint 9/11 inquiry and senate intelligence committees, the raND corporation, and the U.s. govern- ment. he writes widely on issues related to U.s. national security, terrorism, and the Middle east. his latest books are Deadly Connections: State Sponsorship of Terrorism (cambridge University Press) and e Five Front War: e Better Way to Fight Global Jihad (Wiley).
Martin indyk is the Director of the saban center for Middle east Policy at Brookings. he served in several senior positions in the U.s. government, most recently as ambassador to israel and before that as assistant secretary of state for Near east a airs and as special assistant to President clin- ton and senior Director for Near east and south asian a airs in the National security council. Before entering government service, he served for eight years as founding executive Director of the Washington institute for Near east Policy. he has published widely on U.s. policy in the Middle east and the arab-israeli peace process. his most re- cent book, Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East (si- mon & schuster), was published in January 2009.
suzanne Maloney is a senior Fellow at the sa- ban center for Middle east Policy at Brookings. she has worked on the state Department’s Policy Planning sta where she provided policy analy- sis and recommendations on iran, iraq, the Gulf states, and broader Middle east issues. Before joining the government, she was the Middle east adviser at exxonMobil corporation and served as project director of the task Force on U.s.-iran re- lations at the council on Foreign relations.
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
Michael e. o’hanlon
Michael o’hanlon is a senior Fellow in Foreign Policy studies at the Brookings institution. he is also Director of research for the 21st century De- fense initiative and senior author of the Brook- ings iraq index and holds the sydney stein chair at Brookings. a former defense budget analyst who advised Members of congress on military spending, he specializes in iraq, North Korea, af- ghanistan, homeland security, Nuclear strategy, the use of military force, and other defense issues. he is the author of Budgeting for Hard Power (Brookings) and e Science of War (Princeton University Press), both forthcoming this summer.
Bruce riedel is senior Fellow for Political tran- sitions in the Middle east and south asia at the saban center for Middle east Policy at Brookings. he served as chairman of President obama’s stra- tegic review of U.s. Policy toward afghanistan and Pakistan. in 2006, he retired a er 30 years service at the cia including postings overseas in the Middle east and europe. he was a senior adviser on the region to the last four presidents of the United states as a sta member of the Na- tional security council at the White house. he was also Deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Near east and south asia at the Pentagon and a senior adviser at the North atlantic treaty organization in Brussels. riedel was a member of President clinton’s peace team at the camp Da- vid, Wye river, and shepherdstown summits. he is the author of e Search for Al Qaeda: Its Lead- ership, Ideology, and Future (Brookings).
table of contents
e trouble with tehran: U.s. Policy options toward iran
Dissuading tehran: e Diplomatic options . . . . . . . . . . . chapter 1: an o er iran shouldn’t refuse: Persuasion .
chapter 2: tempting tehran: e engagement option . Part ii
Disarming tehran: e Military options . . . . . . . . . . . . . . chapter 3: Going all the Way: invasion . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
chapter 4: e osiraq option: airstrikes . . . . . . . . . . . . . chapter 5: Leave it to Bibi: allowing or encouraging an
israeli Military strike . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . toppling tehran: regime change. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
chapter 6: e Velvet revolution: supporting a Popular
Uprising. . . . .
chapter 7: inspiring an insurgency: supporting iranian and opposition Groups. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
chapter 8: e coup: supporting a Military Move against the regime Part iV
Deterring tehran: containment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . chapter 9: accepting the Unacceptable: containment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
cra ing an integrated iran Policy: connecting the options . . . . . . . . . . .
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the troUBLe With tehraN U.s. Policy options toward iran
What should the United states do about iran? e question is easily asked, but for nearly 30 years, Washington has had di culty coming up with a good answer. e islamic re- public presents a particularly confounding series of challenges for the United states. Many iranian leaders regard the United states as their greatest enemy for ideological, nationalistic, and/or secu- rity reasons, while a great many average iranians evince the most pro-american feelings of any in the Muslim world. Unlike other states that may also fear or loathe the United states, iran’s lead- ers have consistently acted on these beliefs, work- ing assiduously to undermine american interests and in uence throughout the Middle east, albeit with greater or lesser degrees of success at dif- ferent times. Moreover, iranian foreign policy is frequently driven by internal political consid- erations that are both di cult to discern by the outside world and even harder to in uence. More than once, iran has followed a course that to out- siders appeared self-defeating but galvanized the iranian people to make far-reaching sacri ces in the name of seemingly quixotic goals.
Despite these frustrating realities, the United states is not in a position to simply ignore iran,
either. iran is an important country in a critical part of the world. although tehran’s role in creat- ing problems in the Middle east is o en exagger- ated, it has unquestionably taken advantage of the growing instability there (itself partly a result of american missteps) to make important gains, of- ten at Washington’s expense. Meanwhile, the 2007 National intelligence estimate on iran, properly understood, warned that tehran was likely to ac- quire the capability to manufacture nuclear weap- ons at some point in the next decade.1
an Undistinguished record
Perhaps not surprisingly, the track record of U.s. policies toward iran is not particularly impres- sive. since 1979 Washington has tried everything from undeclared warfare to unilateral conces- sions. ese policies have done better at limiting iranian mischief making than their critics will ad- mit but have largely failed to convince tehran to drop its support for terrorist groups, its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, or its wider e orts to overturn the regional status quo.
For its part, the Bush 43 administration had no explicit policy toward tehran for its rst two to
1 National intelligence council, “National intelligence estimate. iran: Nuclear intentions and capabilities,” November 2007, available at <http:// www.dni.gov/press_releases/20071203_release.pdf>, downloaded on February 9, 2009.
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three years. e administration simply did not know what to do about iran and relegated it to the “too hard box,” which led to crosswise tacti- cal decisions—like accepting iranian cooperation against the taliban and al-Qa’ida early on but musing indiscreetly about bringing regime change to tehran a er Kabul and Baghdad. only in 2003- 2004, a er the surprising progress of iran’s nucle- ar program was revealed, did Washington adopt a deliberate approach to tehran. in part because of the inherent di culties in dealing with iran, and in part because of the deep divisions within the Bush 43 administration, the resulting policy attempted to straddle at least two very di erent approaches: attempting to mobilize international pressure on iran to give up its nuclear program while retaining, at least rhetorically, the threat to pursue regime change (if not military action)— and being unwilling to take further actions in the diplomatic sphere that were seen as “so ” on teh- ran or otherwise inconsistent with regime change.
e U.s. o cials charged with implementing the Bush administration’s policy of diplomatic pres- sure on iran played a weak hand surprisingly well. Despite the constraints placed on them—particu- larly their inability to o er signi cant positive incentives to iran or to other key international actors to secure their cooperation—they devised novel nancial sanctions that caused real pain in tehran and convinced reluctant foreign govern- ments to apply ever greater pressure, including four UN security council resolutions enacted under chapter Vii of the UN charter.
Despite these accomplishments, the Bush admin- istration’s approach was wearing thin before the president le o ce. although battered, tehran has so far withstood the international pressure and has made steady progress toward acquiring a nuclear capability. roughout the region, iran’s star is seen as waxing while that of the United states wanes. consequently, there is an emerging consensus within the american foreign policy
establishment that the obama administration will have to adopt a new policy toward iran, and possibly a more ambitious one, which can suc- ceed where its predecessors’ have failed.
e political, think-tank, and academic com- munities have not been reticent about proposing new iran policies, but the overall result has been somewhat disappointing. No one has been able to devise an approach toward iran that would have a high likelihood of achieving american objectives at a reasonable price. Moreover, the options that have been proposed o en seek to accomplish very di erent goals depending on what the respective advocate believes the United states should be seeking to accomplish. e result has been a ca- cophony that has confused far more than it has clari ed at a time when the american people and their new president desperately need a clear-eyed explication of the various options available so that they can make an informed choice regarding which course to follow.
President Barack obama has already taken up this gauntlet. since coming to o ce, he and sec- retary of state hillary clinton have repeatedly stated that they would like to begin a process of direct dialogue with tehran. still, the president has emphasized that such engagement will be part of a wider strategy of carrots and sticks aimed at encouraging tehran to modify its behavior. in particular, the president has made clear that he hopes to build an international consensus to im- pose much harsher sanctions on tehran should the iranian leadership refuse Washington’s newly extended hand of friendship. Whether this ap- proach can do better than its predecessors remains very much up in the air. at the very least, it should be thoroughly examined and tested to determine how best to implement it, and to try to ascertain the likelihood of its success. Moreover, because its prospects are uncertain and american policies to- ward iran have a bad habit of falling short of their mark, it is also important to consider alternatives,
2 WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
contingencies, follow-ons, and fallbacks from the administration’s chosen approach.
a Very hard Target
e problem of formulating an e ective new U.s. policy toward iran starts in tehran. since the 1979 islamic revolution, much of the iranian leadership has harbored considerable antipathy toward the United states. ayatollah sayyid ruhol- lah Musavi Khomeini himself saw the world as a Manichean struggle between good and evil, with iran standing as the champion of good (and of is- lam, synonymous concepts in his mind) and the United states as the champion of everything evil. is set of beliefs lay at the core of his thinking and became a foundational element in the philosophy and claims to legitimacy of the regime.2 While there is no question that some iranian leaders and most of the iranian people would like better rela- tions with the United states, this core belief con- tinues to inspire other, o en more powerful, ira- nian actors and institutions.3 in particular, iran’s
president, Mahmud ahmadinejad, is by all ac- counts a devout adherent to Khomeini’s concep- tion, including his philosophical suspicion and loathing of the United states.4 even among those iranian leaders who have long since moved be- yond the imam’s ideology, many still see the Unit- ed states as a more traditional rival in southwest asia, where a great many iranians believe that their nation should, by nature or divine right, hold some form of dominion.5 Khomeini’s suc- cessor, ayatollah ‘ali Khamene’i, may or may not share his predecessor’s hatred of america, but his words and deeds indicate that he is deeply suspi- cious, even fearful, of the United states.6
as a result, the question of iran’s relationship with the United states has been the “third rail” of irani- an politics since before Khomeini’s death in 1989. Pragmatic elements in the iranian leadership have frequently argued for improved ties with the United states, largely based on the need for iran to end its political and (especially) economic isola- tion and begin to revive its revolution-, war-, and
2 said arjomand, e Turban for the Crown: e Islamic Revolution in Iran (New York: oxford University Press, 1988); William o. Beeman, “images of the Great satan: representations of the United states in the iranian revolution,” in Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi’ism from Quietism to Revolution, ed. Nikki r. Keddie (New haven, ct.: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 191-217; richard cottam, “inside revolutionary iran,” in Iran’s Revolution: e Search for Consensus, ed. r.K. ramazani (Bloomington, iN: indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 3-26; Massoumeh ebtekar, as told to Fred a. reed, Takeover in Tehran: e Inside Story of the 1979 U.S. Embassy Capture (Vancouver, canada: talon Books, 2000), esp. p. 77; Baqer Moin, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah (London: i.B. tauris, 1999), esp. p. 220; robert snyder, “explaining the iranian revolution’s hostility toward the United states,” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 17, no. 3 (spring 1994).
3 on iranian public opinion, see terror Free tomorrow, “Polling iranian Public opinion: an Unprecedented Nationwide survey of iran,” July 2007, available at <http://www.terrorfreetomorrow.org/upimagest /tFt%20iran%20survey%20report.pdf>, downloaded on January 7, 2007; Karim sadjadpour, “how relevant is the iranian street?” Washington Quarterly 30, no. 1 (Winter 2006-2007), pp. 151-162.
4 anoushiravan ehteshami and Mahjoob Zweiri, Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives: e Politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution (London: i.B. tauris, 2007); Barbara slavin, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (New York: st. Martin’s, 2007).
5 on iranian politics and the debates over iranian policy toward the United states, see for instance ali M. ansari, Modern Iran Since 1921: e Pahlavis and A er (London: Longman, 2003); Daniel Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini: e Struggle for Reform in Iran (chicago: University of chicago Press, 2001); Daniel Byman et al., Iran’s Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era (santa Monica, ca: raND, 2001); elton L. Daniel, e History of Iran (Westport, ct: Greenwood Press, 2001); anoushiravan ehteshami, A er Khomeini: e Iranian Second Republic (London: routledge, 1995); Mark J. Gasiorowski, “ e Power struggle in iran,” Middle East Policy 7, no. 4 (october 2000): 22-40; Jerrold D. Green, Parastatal Economic Organizations and Stability in Iran: e Role of Bonyads (santa Monica, ca: raND, 1997); Nikki r. Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, revised and updated edition (New haven, ct: Yale University Press, 2003); Nikki r. Keddie and rudi Matthee, eds., Iran and the Surrounding World: Interactions in Culture and Cultural Politics (seattle, Wa: University of Washington Press, 2002); David Menashri, Revolution at a Crossroads: Iran’s Domestic Politics and Regional Ambitions (Washington: Washington institute for Near east Policy, 1997); Mehdi Moslem, Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran (syracuse, NY: syracuse University Press, 2002); robert snyder, “explaining the iranian revolution’s hostility toward the United states,” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 17, no. 3 (spring 1994); ray takeyh, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic (New York: times Books, 2006).
6 on Khamene’i’s thinking regarding the United states, the best work available is Karim sadjadpour, “reading Khamenei: e World View of iran’s Most Powerful Leader,” report, carnegie endowment for international Peace, March 2008.
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corruption-ravaged economy. at various times, these gures have even attempted to open covert channels of communication to the United states to lay the groundwork for a rapprochement, most notably in 1986 (in what became the iran-contra scandal), 1995, and 1998-1999. however, in every case, the e ort was uncovered by more hard-line elements in the regime and was quickly throttled.
Meanwhile, iran’s hard-liners—who have con- sistently advocated a policy of across-the-board confrontation with the United states by subvert- ing american allies, supporting militant groups that seek violent change to the Middle eastern status quo, and even mounting acts of terror- ism—have not fully succeeded in steering iran’s america policy either. at times, tehran’s course has leaned hard in their direction, such as in 1987-1988 when iranian forces attacked U.s. na- val vessels in the Persian Gulf, 1992-1997 when the iranians mounted a diplomatic and terrorist o ensive against the United states and its allies in the Middle east, and 2006-2008 when tehran provided iraqi insurgents with weapons capable of killing large numbers of american soldiers in hope of driving the United states into a rapid withdrawal. however, even in these instances, iran’s collective leadership typically refrained from adopting the hard-liners’ most extreme po- sitions and even made important concessions to the pragmatists.7
us, seen from Washington, iran’s course has of- ten seemed peripatetic and perplexing. For long periods, iran has appeared to be america’s Mid- dle eastern nemesis, supporting every nation, group, or person who wished the United states harm and trying to block virtually everything the
United states sought to accomplish, o en simply because it was the United states making the ef- fort. en, o en with little warning, Washington would note a slight change in rhetoric or an ob- scure overture of unknown, but unquestionably iranian, provenance. in 1986 and 1998, Washing- ton reacted quickly and took considerable risks to reciprocate and make clear its desire for better relations. in 1995 the United states was much tar- dier, in large measure because the iranian gesture was especially oblique. in 2003 the United states simply ignored the opening from tehran. Nev- ertheless, in every case, because those iranians desirous of rapprochement were unable to over- come the entrenched psychological and political enmity toward the United states of other iranian leaders, the overtures quickly evaporated regard- less of how rapidly, generously, or enthusiastically Washington responded.
of course, america was not exactly an innocent bystander in these cycles of confrontation and collaboration. o entimes, bellicose american ac- tions (meant as such or merely interpreted as such in tehran) triggered belligerent iranian responses. in 1987-1988, the reagan administration, despite all its cowboy bravura, was dragged into escort- ing Kuwaiti tankers, but tehran assumed that the United states eagerly sought the opportunity to attack iranian naval and air forces in the Persian Gulf. on the other hand, some members of the U.s. congress in the mid-1990s and some mem- bers of the Bush 43 administration in 2004-2006 appeared to be trying to deliberately provoke teh- ran, and the iranians took the bait. it is almost certainly the case, therefore, that even the most well-disposed observers in tehran view ameri- can policy as equally confused and confusing.
7 in addition to the sources in note 3, above, see also anthony cordesman, Iran and Iraq: e reat from the Northern Gulf (Boulder, co: Westview, 1994); Michael eisenstadt, Iranian Military Power: Capabilities and Intentions (Washington: Washington institute for Near east Policy, 1997); Michael a. Palmer, Guardians of the Gulf: A History of America’s Expanding Role in the Persian Gulf, 1833-1992 (New York: Free Press, 1992).
4 WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
e net e ect has been that the U.s.-iranian rela- tionship has functioned like the proverbial pen- dulum. at times, the United states and iran have developed tacit working relationships (such as over afghanistan and toward al-Qa’ida in 2001- 2003) or even kabuki-like courtships (such as in 1998-2000). at other times, the two sides seemed poised on the brink of war (as in 1987-1988, 1995-1997, and 2006-2007).
Because it seemed so hard for U.s. and iranian overtures to coincide, and because the iranian gestures appeared inevitably to be throttled by the regime’s more hard-line elements, over time, american policymakers increasingly saw the iran issue as a loser. any e ort to be proactive with iran, either to try to engage it and entice it into a better relationship, or to confront it and try to force it to behave better, ended up in the same frustrating nowhere where it had begun. Because the iranian leadership was consistently unwilling to jettison its ideological, political, and national- istic antipathies toward the United states, it was never willing to accept american o ers for better relations, most notably during 1989-1991 under the Bush 41 administration and in 1998-2000 un- der the clinton administration. Because tehran was also willing to allow further erosion of the
iranian economy and to accept varying degrees of international isolation and sanctions, whatever pressure the United states imposed kept tehran weak but did not force a fundamental change in iranian foreign policy. in Washington, iran policy increasingly was viewed as a fruitless necessity, one that policymakers sought to ignore to the ex- tent they possibly could.8 indeed, this sentiment seemed to be the prevailing view of Bush 43 se- nior o cials in the early years of that administra- tion. even among the academic and think-tank communities, for most of the period between 1992 and 2003—except for the brief period be- tween 1998 and 2000 when clinton tried, ulti- mately unsuccessfully, to secure a rapprochement with Muhammad Khatami—work on iran policy was largely relegated to a small community of ex- perts, whose proposals were primarily tactical, not strategic, in nature—and even then these were frequently ignored by the policy community.9
e transformation of american and iranian for- tunes in 2002-2004 sparked both the interest in a proactive policy toward iran and an agitated new debate over what such a policy should encompass. Prior to 2002, iran was seen (by the United states and many countries throughout the Middle east) as a di cult but largely marginalized troublemaker
8 see for instance, Martin indyk, Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East (New York: simon & schuster, 2009); Kenneth M. Pollack, e Persian Puzzle: e Con ict between Iran and America (New York: random house, 2004), esp. pp. 244-342. Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the relative lack of interest in devising a proactive strategy toward iran during the administrations of Bush 41, clinton, and early Bush 43 can be found in the virtual silence on the topic of iran in the memoirs of key o cials in those various administrations. see, for example, Madeleine albright, Madam Secretary (New York: Miramax Books, 2003); James a. Baker iii, e Politics of Diplomacy (New York: c.r. Putnam’s sons, 1995); George Bush and Brent scowcro , A World Transformed (New York: alfred a. Knopf, 1998); Warren christopher, In the Stream of History: Shaping Foreign Policy for a New Era (stanford, ca: stanford University Press, 1998); Warren christopher, Chances of a Lifetime (New York: scribner, 2001); Bill clinton, My Life (New York: alfred a. Knopf, 2004). also see condoleezza rice, “campaign 2000: Promoting the National interest,” Foreign A airs 79, no. 1 (January-February 2000]. is essay by rice laid out what candidate George W. Bush’s foreign policy philosophy would be if elected president. iran received three short paragraphs, all of which were descriptive, not prescriptive, in nature, and the subject was famously dismissed with the remark, “all in all, changes in U.s. policy toward iran would require changes in iranian behavior.”
9 as one indication of this trend, a er James Bill published e Eagle and the Lion: e Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New haven, ct: Yale University Press) in 1988, another major work on U.s.-iranian relations was not published until 2004. again, there were numerous journal articles and opinion pieces written on the subject during the interim, but these largely concerned matters of immediate U.s.-iranian relations rather than e orts to reexamine the relationship as a whole and prescribe a new overarching direction. in 2004 a major task force report was published by the council on Foreign relations, again signaling the willingness of the american policy community to try to begin thinking about a new iran strategy. see Zbigniew Brzezinski and robert M. Gates, “iran: time for a New approach,” report, council on Foreign relations, July 2004.
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with the strength to play the spoiler in arab-israeli peace negotiations and Lebanese politics but un- able to mount any more of a threat than that. in- deed, many iran experts began to see the regime as increasingly anachronistic and likely to evolve slowly into something more benign over time— although it could certainly do some damage be- fore that happened. From this perspective, there seemed to be little need for a dramatically new american strategic approach to deal with iran.10
however, in 2002-2004, iran’s position seemed to reverse itself. e international atomic energy agency con rmed the revelations of iranian op- positionists that tehran’s nuclear program was far more advanced, and closer to being able to produce nuclear weapons, than had previously been known. at the same time, the United states overthrew the taliban’s regime in afghanistan and saddam husayn’s regime in iraq—thereby eliminating iran’s two greatest regional security threats. Washington’s catastrophic mishandling of the reconstruction of both of those countries bogged down the United states—militarily, polit- ically, and economically—and greatly hampered the Bush administration’s ability to deal with iran or other regional actors looking to challenge the status quo. Worse still, because tehran wielded considerable in uence with armed groups in both countries, it could threaten vital american inter- ests in iraq and afghanistan if it chose to do so and was able to contribute to the military and po- litical problems of the United states in both. com- pounding these vulnerabilities, the Bush admin- istration botched political developments in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, causing new civil strife in each. Perhaps most damaging,
it did not look to quell the 2006 israel-hizballah or the 2008-2009 israel-hamas con icts, both of which produced results that were widely seen as victories for key iranian allies. Moreover, desta- bilizing spillover e ects from iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and afghanistan incited internal unrest in a number of countries around the region, leaving many of america’s staunchest allies (and iran’s worst foes) feeling shaken and vulnerable. By 2005-2006 the United states ap- peared weak and in retreat all across the region, whereas iran seemed to be leading a new rejec- tionist coalition that threatened to transform the Middle east’s strategic landscape.
is threat, or the impression of such a threat, shocked the american leadership and forced Washington—both the Bush administration and the wider policy community—to begin thinking about iran in ways it had not in the past. in par- ticular, the sense of a strategic threat from iran, even among those who believed that it was being exaggerated by others, meant that simply trying to ignore iran or merely reacting to its latest ac- tions was no longer su cient. instead, the United states had to adopt a new strategy intended to eliminate, ameliorate, or contain this threat.
Building a Better Iran Policy
since this realization, there has been no shortage of books and articles advocating particular pol- icy positions toward iran. Unfortunately, these pieces have o en added more heat than light to the debate over how the United states should handle the many problems presented by iran. as a result, policy positions are routinely dismissed
10 see, for instance, Geneive abdo and Jonathan Lyons, Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in Twenty-First Century Iran (New York: henry holt, 2003); Jahangir amuzegar, “iran’s Future: civil society or civil Unrest,” Middle East Policy 7, no. 1 (october 1999): 86-101; Daniel Byman et al., Iran’s Security Policy; afshin Molavi, Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys across Iran (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002); elaine sciolino, Persian Mirrors: e Elusive Face of Iran (New York: Free Press, 2000); suzanne Maloney, “elections in iran: a New Majlis and a Mandate for reform,” Middle East Policy7, no. 3 (June 2000): pp. 59-66; robin Wright, e Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran (New York: alfred a. Knopf, 2000).
6 WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
by partisans of other approaches as being unwor- thy even of consideration. e right sneers at the idea of engaging with iran as “appeasement,” and the le clamors for the U.s. government to abjure all resort to force under any circumstance. even in the muddled middle, there is confusion regard- ing the priority that should be given to negotia- tions versus containment, and what mix of incen- tives and disincentives is appropriate to coerce or persuade tehran. at confusion has arisen in part from proponents’ unwillingness to take their analyses deeper than sloganeering and in part from deliberate e orts to obfuscate the real costs and risks involved in virtually every policy to- ward iran. Moreover, in recent years, the debate has increasingly focused on the narrow question of iran’s nuclear weapons program (admittedly a critical concern), frequently losing sight of the wider range of american di erences with iran.
e central purpose of this monograph is to try to present the most important policy options available to the United states to cra a new strat- egy toward iran, and to do so in a dispassionate, objective fashion. We have attempted to portray each option in its naked glory, without the gloss of advocacy. each of us believes that some of the options are better than others, but we all recog- nize that none are perfect and all have more risks and costs than guaranteed bene ts. We have also sought to present them in a similar format to try to highlight the di erences among them. one of the many failings of the current iran debate is that proponents of di erent perspectives are of- ten arguing about apples and oranges—compar- ing policies meant to achieve very di erent goals as if they were meant to achieve the same ends, or starting from assumptions as if everyone were in complete agreement about these assumptions. Part of the problem is that there is no national consensus, and one of President obama’s tasks in forging a new strategy toward iran will be to build such a consensus or at least achieve a national tol- erance for his preferred course.
We argue that at least nine discrete approaches to iran have emerged in the public debate, and it is these nine options that we treat in this study. ese nine di er in a variety of ways: not simply in that they would employ di erent policy instru- ments but also because they o en seek to achieve di erent goals. ese di erences re ect divergent assumptions about iran, about the international community, and about how best to prioritize and secure american interests regarding iran. For in- stance, the debate between those who favor one of the diplomatic options and those who favor some form of regime change is not just about which would be the best way to head o the iranian nu- clear program; it is also about whether the United states should be willing to accept the islamic re- public at all.
We have further grouped these nine options into four “bundles” re ecting the similarities among several of them. Part i of the monograph treats the two diplomatic options. it begins by examin- ing the policy option that the obama administra- tion has already announced will be its approach to iran, a policy we have dubbed one of “Persua- sion,” by which the United states would employ positive and negative incentives to convince iran to give up its problematic behavior. Because this policy is not guaranteed to succeed, and because many americans may disagree with the admin- istration’s approach, we go on to address a much wider range of alternative strategies, beginning with another diplomatic option, one of pure “engagement,” that would junk all of the sanc- tions and focus instead on accommodation and reassurance in an attempt to persuade tehran to mend its ways. Part ii looks at the various military options—a full-scale invasion, a more limited air campaign to destroy iran’s nuclear program, and allowing israel to mount its own airstrike against the same. regime change is the focus of Part iii, in all of its di erent variants: attempting to trig- ger a popular revolution, supporting an insur- gency (ethnic or political) against the regime, and
The Saban Center at The Brookings Institution 7
aiding a military coup. Finally, Part iV examines the idea of moving directly to a policy of contain- ment of iran, in which the United states would attempt to deter iran from trying to wield a future nuclear arsenal while hindering its ability to cause trouble in the Middle east and central asia.
Nine Bad options
Most readers are likely to conclude that all nine of the options presented in this monograph are riddled with costs, complications, risks, and low likelihoods of success. Unfortunately, the avail- able options re ect the di culties facing the United states when it comes to iran, rather than a paucity of thinking on the subject. Perhaps some new Kennan or Kissinger will emerge to reveal the answer to america’s Persian dilemma, but it seems unlikely. Washington is probably limited to variations of the nine approaches considered in this study, all of which involve heavy costs, sig- ni cant risks, and potentially painful trade-o s.
us, in producing this study of the policy op- tions toward iran, we have tried to present the options in a neutral fashion in one place and in a uniform manner that allows easy comparisons and highlights di erences, and in a way that does not attempt to so -pedal potential risks and costs. We have endeavored to provide readers a full explanation of the options without the par- tisan distortions typical in many of the advocacy pieces now cluttering the public debate. More- over, by presenting them in a uniform format, we believe the reader will be able to make com- parisons across the di erent options and see their di erences—not just in approach but in goals, costs and bene ts, desired end states, and neces- sary trade-o s. reasonable people may favor dif- ferent options, because they seek di erent objec- tives, hold di erent priorities, or are more willing to pay a certain price to deal with the problem of iran, rather than because a given option is more likely to succeed.
For these reasons, each option is presented in a fairly formulaic fashion. We start with its goal and the general time frame in which the policy might be expected to achieve that goal, then provide an overview of how the policy would work, followed by a section describing what would be required in terms of resources and tasks to give the policy the best chance of succeeding. We then conclude with a rundown of the various pros and cons associated with the policy. in this e ort we received invalu- able help from henri Barkey, Geo rey Kemp, el- len Laipson, abbas Milani, Mohsen Milani, carlos Pascual, George Perkovich, Danielle Pletka, and robin Wright. all of them provided comments and criticisms that not only improved this mono- graph’s quality but also helped remove bias.
although the nine di erent approaches we pres- ent represent discrete ways for the United states to handle iran, it is not the case that all of these options are meant to stand alone. Quite to the contrary. e best american strategy toward iran would doubtless combine several of these ap- proaches into an integrated policy, in which the di erent approaches would be pursued sequen- tially or simultaneously, and thus in a comple- mentary fashion. however, for analytic purposes, to most clearly illustrate the di erences among them—and to best reveal which options can best be integrated with one another—we have chosen to present them as separately and discretely as possible. e concluding chapter addresses how the di erent options could be combined to pro- duce such an integrated strategy.
Strategy, Then Tactics
For the most part, we present the nine options in a largely “bare bones” fashion, laying them out in their broad conception without delving into too many details. We did not sketch out invasion routes or list all of the targets for airstrikes, nor did we attempt to spell out how to turn ahvazi arab separatists into a full-blown insurgency or
8 WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
to detail the myriad steps that might be tried to engage or contain iran. at is not the purpose of this volume. Filling in the details requires a great deal of information about the speci c circum- stances in which the policy is to be implement- ed—information that is not necessarily available as of this writing. our goal was to help readers (and perhaps members of the new administra- tion) see the principal di erences among the op- tions more clearly, their di ering objectives and end states, their di ering costs and risks, their di ering responses to the threat from iran, and their di erent acceptability to various constituen- cies—foreign and domestic.
only by seeing the options in this stark form can american policymakers accurately devise a policy that ts with their goals, perception of the iranian threat, willingness to bear sacri ces, and prioriti- zation of the problem of iran versus those of the economy, health care, afghanistan, iraq, russia, and everything else the United states currently confronts. once these questions are addressed, the United states can adopt a policy toward iran that ts the bill and then adapt the basic prem- ise of the policy to the speci c circumstances of the moment. But without a clear-eyed assessment of how threatening americans believe iran to be, what they want to achieve, and what costs they are willing to pay to achieve that goal, the details will not add up to a strategy. indeed, another of the problems Washington has had in the past is ob- sessing about disputes over niggling details and, in so doing, losing sight of any coherent, over- arching strategy toward iran.
a Note on Policy Names
For nearly a decade, some scholars and experts on iraq have advocated a policy of “engagement” with iran, by which they meant that the United states should li all of its sanctions and end its other e orts to constrain or punish tehran, and instead try to entice iran into a purely cooperative
relationship. eir assumption has been that iran reacts very badly to threats, no matter how condi- tional, and only a patient, long-term e ort to con- vince iran that the United states is not a threat of any kind will have an impact on tehran’s behavior, and then only by gradually taming the islamic re- public over many years, if not decades. is policy assumes that the United states cannot prevent iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, nor can Washington coerce tehran into ceasing its support for violent extremist groups or trying to overturn the regional status quo in anything like real time. erefore, the United states sim- ply must accept these realities in the short term, in the hope that reduced pressure and friendship will eventually bring about either a change in the regime’s behavior, or even a change in the regime itself. is is also the policy that we call “engage- ment” in this monograph.
however, since the advent of the obama admin- istration, other people (including many in the media) have chosen to call the president’s new ap- proach to iran a policy of “engagement” because the president has stated that he wants to begin di- rect negotiations with tehran. Unfortunately, this has the potential to create confusion when consid- ering the various options available to the United states, the nine options presented in this volume.
Because the obama administration’s start- ing policy toward iran features more than just a process of direct negotiations, and in particular features the threat of further sanctions if iran re- fuses to meet the United states halfway—a criti- cal di erence from the usual meaning of “engage- ment” with iran—we have chosen to describe this as a policy of “Persuasion” instead. indeed, the obama administration’s policy is an updated version of an older approach that is typically re- ferred to as one of “carrots and sticks”; however, for reasons explained in chapter 1, we argue that this moniker should no longer be used to describe this option.
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
Setting the Scene
Formulating a new iran strategy is not for the faint hearted, nor is it for novices. iran is an enor- mously complex country, both in terms of its government and people. its interaction with the world is more complicated still. it is therefore use- ful for the reader to keep certain critical factors in mind when considering the options—factors that will likely play a role in shaping any of the options and iran’s responses to them.
The Iranian Threat to U.S. Interests
a crucial question that the obama administra- tion must ponder is the threat that iran poses to U.s. interests. Not surprisingly, there is a very wide range of opinion about the extent of that threat. some americans argue that iran does not constitute a meaningful threat at all, whereas oth- ers contend that it is one of the most dangerous opponents that the United states faces.
e threats from iran to american interests gen- erally fall under four main categories.
Support for Violent extremist Groups. on at least one occasion, a court of law has proven that the iranian government was responsible for an act of terrorism (an assassination in a Berlin restau- rant in 1992). Beyond this, there is a great deal of intelligence information indicating that iran has engaged in other acts of terrorism and supports a range of groups that engage in terrorist attacks— including hizballah, Palestinian islamic Jihad, and hamas. iran is widely believed to have been behind the attacks on the U.s. Marine and French army barracks in Beirut in 1983, Jewish and is- raeli facilities in south america in the 1990s, and the american-occupied Khobar towers housing complex in saudi arabia in 1996.
iran generally pursues a foreign policy that seeks to upset the status quo in the Middle east, and
because many iranian leaders (probably including Khamene’i) see the United states as their princi- pal foe, they also seek to weaken the United states however they can. iran is not the only country that has taken such a course, but unlike most, iran will back groups that use violence to advance those aims, including violence against americans or against U.s. allies. hizballah (in all its various incarnations) and hamas fall into this category because they are not just terrorists, they are in- surgents—or legitimate resistance, depending on your point of view. ere is abundant evidence that iran has provided arms to a wide range of iraqi militia and insurgent groups and that those weapons have been used to kill americans; there is also evidence, albeit weaker, that iranians are doing the same for the taliban and other groups in afghanistan who are ghting the United states and Nato forces there.
e orts to Subvert U.S. allies. ere is strong, but not incontrovertible, evidence that iran has aided groups seeking to overthrow the governments of saudi arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain (and arguably Lebanon and israel as well) at various times. is, too, appears to be part of iran’s e orts to weaken the american position in the Middle east, but it is also probably a manifestation of the desire of many iranian leaders to overturn the regional status quo for both ideological and strategic rea- sons. to the extent that the United states sees it in its interest to have allies in the Gulf, an iranian threat to those governments constitutes a threat to american interests.
e orts to Block an arab-Israeli Peace agree- ment. Many americans—and certainly every U.s. administration since Nixon—believe that con ict between israel and the arabs threatens american interests because of its potential to draw in other countries (including great powers), escalate to nuclear weapons use, overturn friendly governments, cause chaos and civil strife, and af- fect Middle eastern oil exports. although some
individual iranian leaders have bravely stated that they would accept any peace with israel that is ac- ceptable to the Palestinians themselves (and pre- sumably the Lebanese and syrians), tehran has mostly opposed peace between arabs and israe- lis, especially peace e orts brokered by the United states. ere is some evidence that iran may have even encouraged (perhaps even ordered) various groups to mount attacks that have derailed peace- making e orts. us many americans perceive iran’s e orts to prevent arab-israeli peacemaking as an indirect threat to the United states as well.
Development of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
When asked about the threat from iran, most americans would probably start with its drive to acquire a nuclear enrichment capability, which is widely believed to be intended to give tehran the capability to build nuclear weapons. however, the threat itself actually consists of many parts, only one or two of which derive from the actual possession of the weapons themselves. e other parts of this threat instead derive from fears re- garding how iran’s development of nuclear weap- ons (or just the capability to make nuclear weap- ons) might heighten the other threats that iran potentially poses to the United states.
e direct threat from iranian possession of one or more nuclear weapons stems from the possi- bility that iran would acquire a nuclear weapon and use it against the United states (either right away or at a time of crisis). Because the american nuclear arsenal is vastly more powerful than iran’s and therefore american retaliation would be ut- terly devastating, tehran would only do so either if its rulers were irrational or they believed that doing so was the only way to save their own lives or the regime.11 e rationality of various iranian
leaders is hotly debated, but american policy- makers simply do not have the information that would allow them to make a de nitive judgment one way or another. Most of iran’s foreign policy decisionmaking since the fall of the shah could probably be characterized as “aggressive but not reckless,” but Washington cannot categorically rule out the possibility that there are truly insane or ideologically possessed iranian leaders who would attempt far worse if they were ever in a po- sition to do so.
Most other U.s. fears about iranian weapons of mass destruction stem from concerns about how possession of such capabilities, and particularly a nuclear arsenal or the ability to build one, could exacerbate the other threats iran poses to the United states. For instance, some americans fear that iran might give nuclear weapons to terrorists. While there are strong arguments as to why teh- ran probably would not do so, this, too, cannot be ruled out, and the consequences if it did come to pass could be truly catastrophic. another pos- sibility is that iran would develop nuclear weap- ons and then use them against israel or another U.s. ally, like saudi arabia—which stands as the great champion of sunni islam, opposing iran as the champion of shi’ah islam. Because the United states has implicitly extended its nuclear umbrella over the saudis, and because israel could retali- ate almost as massively against iran as the United states could, this, too, is only likely in circum- stances where iran’s leaders are irrational or face their own demise.
For many americans, a more likely (if somewhat less catastrophic) threat in iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability is that iran will be emboldened in its support of terrorism, violent
11 certainly, there are americans who believe that some iranian leaders are irrational—in particular, that they subscribe to a millenarian vision of the world in which they must take apocalyptic actions to ful ll God’s plan. however, most experts on iran are doubtful of this prospect or, more important, that such zealotry would guide iranian actions.
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
militant groups, e orts to subvert american al- lies, and e orts to overturn the Middle eastern status quo. in other words, once iran has a nu- clear capability of some kind, tehran will believe that it is safe from retaliation by the United states, israel, or any other country, and so it will pursue a wide variety of aggressive actions with far fewer restraints than in the past—which would likely lead to various crises, including confrontation with the United states. e acquisition of nucle- ar weapons or a nuclear weapons capability has made some countries behave more responsibly (china and eventually russia), but in other cases, it has either not changed their behavior appre- ciably (North Korea, south africa, and arguably india) or has made them more aggressive (russia under Khrushchev and Pakistan). here the con- cern is not so much that iranian leaders would act irrationally, but simply that they would be- come even more aggressive, and would overstep and miscalculate. over the past 30 years, there is no question that, whatever their intentions, iranian leaders have acted aggressively (at least for periods of time) and have found themselves in extremely dangerous positions that they did not envision when they rst set out. a nuclear capability would vastly increase the potential rami cations of this kind of behavior for iran, its neighbors, and potentially the United states. as americans learned during the cold War, crises between two nuclear armed states are extraordi- narily dangerous events and should be avoided if at all possible.
Threats and options
to a very great extent, fashioning a new strategy toward iran should be driven by americans’ per- ception of the threat that iran poses. american willingness to tolerate the threat posed by iran must be weighed against the price of eliminat- ing the threat. e less americans feel threatened by iran, the less they should be willing to pay to eliminate the threat; and the more threatened
americans feel, the more they should be willing to give to eliminate it.
indeed, one reason for the wide divergences among americans on iran policy is that some nd iran far more threatening to U.s. interests than do oth- ers. if one believes that iran’s leaders are irrational or ideologically blinded to the point where they would use a nuclear weapon if they possessed one, then such a level of concern would likely cause one to support the most extreme options. is is not to say that one should be unwilling to try one or more of the diplomatic or regime change options rst, or even try airstrikes before going all in. But if these e orts fail, such a perception of threat may well lead to the conclusion that the costs of an in- vasion are more palatable than the risk that iran will employ a future nuclear arsenal.
to some extent, the converse is also true: that one’s devotion to a particular option typically re- veals (at least it should reveal) one’s perception of the threat from iran. ose who fervently em- brace the diplomatic options but refuse to coun- tenance any of the military or regime change op- tions are implicitly declaring that while they may not want to see iran acquire a nuclear capability, they are not so concerned about it that they would be willing to endure the costs and risks associated with covert action, airstrikes, or an invasion. even the most optimistic experts recognize that it will be di cult to convince iran to give up its nuclear program through diplomacy alone—whether by engagement, inducements, sanctions, or some combination—and so stopping at diplomacy means leaving considerable probability that iran’s nuclear program will not be stopped.
The View from Tehran
e iranian political system is one of the most complex, Byzantine, fragmented, and opaque on earth. consequently, summarizing even just those elements relevant to a consideration of U.s.
policy options toward iran is a daunting task, one that requires a tremendous amount of generaliza- tion and super ciality. Nevertheless, it is impor- tant to remember that achieving america’s goals with iran will not be a unilateral exercise: the ira- nians get a vote, too. Ultimately, success will de- pend on how iran reacts to U.s. policy initiatives, how Washington responds to tehran’s moves, and how each side feels about the other’s subsequent actions down the road. For this reason, it is useful to have at least a thumbnail sketch of some key features of the iranian political scene, and how iranians see the United states.
it is always dangerous to try to generalize about iranian opinion because, more than in most countries, iran’s people and its establishment tend to have widely divergent views on almost any issue imaginable. But from the broadest ap- erture, iran seems to see itself as simultaneously very strong and successful, and very weak and troubled. to some extent, which one an iranian tends to emphasize o en re ects his or her pri- mary concerns.
in the international arena, many iranians see themselves as quite strong and are proud of hav- ing made important gains. is is certainly the case for iran’s radical hard-line leadership, such as President ahmadinejad and the commanders of the revolutionary Guards, who see iran’s e orts to put together a rejectionist front against the United states and its allies as having made great progress in recent years. iran’s two most immediate threats, saddam husayn’s regime in iraq and the taliban regime in afghanistan, are gone, and the U.s. military is bogged down in both places, limiting its ability to threaten iran. e hard-liners per- ceive the military clashes of hizballah and hamas against israel as having redounded to iran’s bene t and play up the popularity of ahmadinejad—and iran’s allies, hassan Nasrallah of hizballah and Khalid Meshal of hamas—among the arab popu- lace as further signs of iran’s strength.
ose iranians whose sight is set more inward tend to paint a di erent picture. e iranian economy is a mess, with both in ation and unemployment approaching 30 percent. iran remains completely dependent on oil exports for its economic liveli- hood, but the low price of oil and projections of dramatic declines in iranian oil production (a product of mismanagement and the inability to secure Western technology because of the sanc- tions) are drastically curtailing tehran’s princi- pal revenues. iran’s oil woes make the impact of both rampant corruption and the international sanctions—formal and informal, multilateral and unilateral—far worse than it already was. Nor do most iranians see a remedy in their political sys- tem. e regime tightly circumscribes both who may rule and what actions they may take. in 1997 iranians elected Mohammed Khatami president because he espoused the Le ’s vision of far-reach- ing change. however, Khatami failed to bring about the change that iranians sought, so in 2005 they went to the polls and elected ahmadinejad president, believing that he would deliver the right’s version of far-reaching change, at least in terms of extensive economic reforms and an end to corruption. he, too, has failed and has actually made the economic problems far worse.
iran’s economic woes, and the vulnerability to ex- ternal pressure that they create, have gone so far as to push its political leadership to consider en- gaging the United states directly in ways it never had in the past. statements by a variety of iranian leaders, including even ahmadinejad, suggest that iran would be willing to engage with repre- sentatives of the obama administration directly. it should be noted that iranian o cials met with members of the Bush 43 administration, both co- vertly during 2001-2003 to coordinate policy on afghanistan and overtly in 2007-2008 to discuss iraq. us the willingness to meet is not new, but what does seem to be is a willingness to discuss the U.s.-iranian relationship itself rather than the narrow mechanics of a particular mutual interest.
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
all that said, it appears that iran’s leadership has so far only made a tactical decision to discuss these issues with the United states, but it has not yet made the strategic decision to compromise on the issues that matter to the United states—such as the iranian nuclear program and support for violent extremist groups. to some extent, this is probably because tehran is not sure what amer- ica’s goals and intentions are, and they do not know what Washington is o ering (or threaten- ing). Whatever else is going on, it is highly likely that the iranians will not cross that bridge until they have entered into a process of negotiations and can see what is on o er. it is worth keeping in mind that “bazaar”— market—is a word of irani- an origin. and in iran, the bazaar is always open.
Beyond this, however, tehran’s approach almost certainly re ects the nature of politics in iran to- day. as we have noted, the iranian polity is riven with factions, and alliances coalesce and splinter with stunning regularity and alacrity, all of which makes it extremely di cult to hold together a broad political coalition capable of e ecting meaningful change over time. Moreover, many key political gures align on opposite ends of the political spectrum on crucial issues. e hard- liners tend to favor a patronage approach to the economy, view improved relations with the Unit- ed states as anathema, and promote iran’s nuclear program as an economic/diplomatic/security panacea. iran’s reformists as well as its more prag- matic gures favor privatization of the economy and view better relations with the United states as critical to securing the trade, aid, and invest- ment that the iranian economy desperately needs; and while they would like to retain at least some aspects of the nuclear program, they have shown a much greater willingness to accept limits on it in return for better international economic and diplomatic relations. in the midst of all of this sits ‘ali Khamene’i, iran’s supreme leader, who is by far the most powerful gure in the iranian system but has preferred to rule by balancing all of iran’s
fractious factions. Khamene’i seems to be deeply suspicious of the United states, and he may share the ideological sympathies of the hard-liners, but he also seems to recognize the economic realities emphasized by the pragmatists. is has placed him on the horns of a dilemma, and his tendency has been to avoid dramatic decisions in favor of one camp or another so as to preserve the status quo in the hope that this will prevent a dangerous internal political schism without doing too much harm to either iran’s economy or security. it is the sum of all of these parts that creates a system that most iranians describe as operating according to the laws of inertia: a body at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force, and a body in motion will remain in motion unless acted on by an outside force. in other words, the complexity and rivalries of the iranian system predispose it to try to keep doing what it has been, and thus dramatic change requires enormous e ort. Given that america’s goal is to change at least iran’s be- havior, if not its capabilities or even the very na- ture of its regime, there is a very high threshold for success.
The International Scene
although it sometimes feels as if the United states and iran exist in a vacuum, they do not. Because the rivalry has played out in the economically vital Persian Gulf region, and because both sides have attempted to enlist support from a wide array of foreign powers, nearly everything about ameri- can policy toward iran involves the participation of other countries. Many of the policy options presented in this volume are impossible without the full-throated support of dozens of other coun- tries. even those options that attempt to rely sole- ly on the unilateral abilities of the United states would greatly bene t from foreign support—and could be badly undercut if key countries chose to actively back iran. consequently, the perspec- tives of other nations regarding iran and the U.s.- iranian confrontation are also important factors
for Washington to consider when devising a new strategy toward iran.
once again, because the problems between iran and the United states touch on numerous di er- ent aspects of the foreign, economic, and secu- rity policies of many nations, simply describing all of the potentially relevant points about every other country and how it might react to various american strategies toward iran would ll many volumes. Nevertheless, it is useful for the reader to bear the basic points in mind when weighing the various options addressed in this monograph.
Iran’s Neighbors. None of the countries of the Middle east or south asia are enthusiastic about the prospect of tehran acquiring the ability to build nuclear weapons, let alone an actual arse- nal. Nevertheless, their reactions have tended to range from studied indi erence (Pakistan, india) to deliberate silence (iraq, afghanistan, armenia) to private panic (turkey, saudi arabia, and the other Gulf states). Yet their willingness to coop- erate with the United states does not always cor- relate with either their public or private positions.
e states of the Gulf cooperation council (Gcc) are both the most concerned and potentially the most in uential american allies in the region. in public, they have tended to say little, although they have announced plans to match iran’s drive for a nuclear energy program as a lightly veiled warning to tehran that its continued pursuit of nuclear enrichment could touch o a regional arms race. e Gulf states have done relatively lit- tle to promote diplomatic e orts to sanction teh- ran, to counterbalance iranian in uence in iraq and afghanistan (although the saudis have been very active in Lebanon), or to “buy” the support of other countries for tougher measures against iran. For example, a few large Gcc weapons or transportation purchases from russian compa- nies might go along way toward changing Mos- cow’s perspective on the iranian nuclear program,
but these have not yet been forthcoming. to some extent, the Gcc’s reticence so far may have been fallout from the ham- sted regional actions of the Bush 43 administration, which so alienated the arab masses that it made it di cult for arab gov- ernments to publicly associate themselves with anything that the United states was leading. in private, Gcc rulers have le no doubt that they do not want to see iran develop a nuclear capa- bility of any kind, fearing that it will encourage tehran to redouble its e orts to stir up the down- trodden shi’i populations of the Gcc, encourage violent extremists in the region, and otherwise try to subvert or overthrow the conservative mon- archies of the arabian peninsula. Nevertheless, the Gcc states have been equally clear that they would not support an american (let alone israeli) military operation against iran, which they fear would end up creating far more problems than it would solve.
e government of iraq is still too fragile to be making waves internationally or picking friends and enemies among its neighbors. Moreover, be- cause of iran’s lingering in uence in iraq and the ties of many iraqi politicians (shi’i and Kurdish) to iran, Baghdad has been wary of involving itself in the international dispute over iran’s nuclear pro- gram. Yet it should be noted that as evinced by the overwhelming popular support for Prime Min- ister Maliki’s o ensives against iranian-backed militias in al-Basrah, sadr city, al-amarah, and elsewhere, most iraqis retain their traditional dis- like for their Persian neighbors. Few iraqis—and probably few of the current iraqi leaders—would want to live next to a powerful, aggressive iran if they could do anything about it. But they can’t. While iraq has made tremendous strides forward from the civil war of 2005-2006, its domestic situation remains precarious. Most iraqi leaders fear that the U.s.-iranian friction might escalate to actual con ict (overt or covert) and would be fought out in iraq, where iranian agents and prox- ies would likely try to mount a major campaign
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against the american soldiers who will remain there until at least 2012. us iraq’s greatest pri- ority has been avoiding any dispute between iran and america that could escalate to ghting and turn iraq into their battleground. a very similar sentiment has guided afghan silence on the issue. Farther a eld, israel may be the only country in the region unhappier than the Gcc about iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon and what this could mean for iranian support of terrorists and other violent extremist groups. israel has been locked in almost daily combat with iranian allies (hamas, hizballah, and the Palestinian islamic Jihad) for over 25 years, and Jerusalem fears that an iranian nuclear capability will motivate teh- ran to encourage its allies to increase their at- tacks on israel. some israelis even fear that iran would use nuclear weapons against them as soon as it acquired a small arsenal—or would give the weapons to terrorists to do so—posing an exis- tential threat to the tiny Jewish state in the literal sense, since a few well-placed nuclear weapons could obliterate nearly all life in israel. in pub- lic, many israeli leaders have threatened to attack iran to prevent it from acquiring such a capability. in private, however, they unanimously state that a diplomatic resolution would be preferable, that a military strike would probably only buy them two to three years, and that they hope they will never have to decide whether to conduct such an opera- tion, both because of the di culties involved and the potential for iranian retaliation.
europe. at some level, european leaders seem to agree that iran should not be allowed to de- velop a nuclear weapons capability (and there is remarkably widespread agreement among them that iran’s nuclear program is meant solely to ac- quire weapons), but they also agree that it would be preferable not to impose harsher sanctions on iran and that the use of force would be di- sastrous. european unity dissolves beyond such bland platitudes. in particular, di erent european states take very di erent positions on whether it is
more important to prevent iran from completing its nuclear program or to avoid further sanctions on iran.
one group of european countries, led by France and Britain, has pushed hard to impose more stringent sanctions on iran to convince it to halt its nuclear activities. is group’s motivation has been primarily the preservation of the global non-proliferation norm and only secondarily the preservation of stability in the Middle east. its argument typically has been that iranian ac- quisition of nuclear weapons (and again, these countries are convinced that this is the aim of the iranian nuclear program) would be the straw that broke the camel’s back of the Non-Proliferation treaty and would spur numerous other countries to acquire nuclear weapons—either to deter iran’s presumed arsenal or merely because there was no longer any reason for them not to do so. ese na- tions have pushed not only for stronger action by the UN security council but even for multilateral action by the european Union outside of the UN process.
another group of european countries, represent- ed principally by Germany and a number of Med- iterranean states, has tended to emphasize their distaste for sanctioning iran. on some occasions, this group has argued that continuing trade with iran is the best way to ameliorate iranian behavior over time (an idea embodied in the engagement option; see chapter 2). at other times, it has ac- cepted the principle of sanctioning iran but, when it came to putting words into deeds, opposed all but the mildest actual restrictions. and on still other occasions, o cials from this group have simply acknowledged that their publics have a philosophical aversion to sanctions and their gov- ernments are not strong enough to go against the popular will. Whether their position is principled or simply politically expedient, these countries have steadfastly resisted placing further pressure on iran and are likely to do so in the future.
if iran’s nuclear program is a topic of great im- portance for europe, tehran’s involvement with terrorists and violent militant groups, let alone its e orts to overturn conservative Middle east- ern governments and block an arab-israeli peace process, stir little european passion. Many euro- peans believe that iran’s activities in these various areas are unhelpful, even dangerous, but they do not seem to have the same power to galvanize european opinion (let alone action) as much as tehran’s nuclear program does. is is an impor- tant area where europe tends both to be internally united and of a di erent mind than the Middle eastern states. consequently, confrontational po- lices toward tehran can o en elicit at least some support when they are tied to iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability but nd little back- ing when meant to respond to iranian activities in other areas that the United states considers alarming.
While europe is united in its opposition to iran’s nuclear program (if not in the method to stop it) and in its indi erence toward iran’s support of militant groups, it is divided over the nature of the iranian regime itself. e islamic republic is brutal, oppressive, repressive, intolerant, paranoid, and prone to widespread human rights abuses. al- though it follows some democratic practices (such as relatively competitive elections), its adherence to others—such as transparency, accountability, the rule of law, the protection of minorities, free- dom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech—ranges from questionable to nonexistent. is morally odious behavior is irrelevant to some european regimes and of paramount importance to others. e scandinavian states in particular are staunch advocates of human rights, and for them, the iranian regime’s treatment of its own citizenry is a matter of great concern.
russia and China. it is widely believed that russia and china could play critical roles in a new american strategy toward iran. Both are
important sources of weapons for iran, including nuclear sales from russia. russia and china are important trading partners with iran, and chi- nese businesses especially have moved into iran to scavenge all of the business deals that Western rms were forced to abandon because of the sanc- tions. us, if russia and china were to follow the West in sanctioning iran, tehran’s already pre- carious economic situation might turn downright perilous.
in particular, the Persuasion approach would greatly bene t from russian and chinese will- ingness to impose harsher sanctions on iran, and because the obama administration has already announced that it will pursue this option, Mos- cow and Beijing hold potential trump cards over america’s course. if russia and china cooper- ate with the United states, iran will come under much heavier pressure; this may or may not be enough to convince iran to change course, but it certainly will give Washington reason to stick with this policy for some time. however, if rus- sia and china oppose the United states (which, in e ect, would be siding with iran), not only would it be far more di cult for the strategy to work, but also the United states will likely drop it much faster and turn instead to di erent options that require less international cooperation.
Both Moscow and Beijing have publicly stated that iran should not be allowed to develop the ca- pability to make highly enriched uranium, which is the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon. ( e iranians probably already have that capability, at least at the theoretical level.) in addition, despite the insistence of many experts and most iranian o cials that they would not do so, both russia and china agreed to refer iran’s nuclear program out of the international atomic energy agency (iaea) and over to the UN security council. ey then proceeded to vote in favor of four se- curity council resolutions against iran enacted under chapter Vii of the UN charter (which
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makes the resolution binding on all member states and is the chapter under which uses of force are authorized). Moreover, two of these resolu- tions included sanctions against various iranian individuals and entities, again something that most experts and most iranians never expected russia or china to support. us, over the past ve years, russia and china have taken some very important steps to counter iran’s ambitions to be- come a nuclear power.
Yet, russia and china have continued to do busi- ness with iran and have not prevented or even cautioned their own companies against doing so. in fact, chinese rms have aggressively at- tempted to expand their business in iran. Like- wise, russia completed work on iran’s Bushehr research reactor, which many believe to be a front that tehran uses to conduct research into more nefarious nuclear activities. russia has also dis- cussed selling iran advanced s-300 surface-to-air missile systems, which would make it more di - cult for israel and the United states to strike iran’s nuclear facilities. e russians and chinese have steadfastly refused to approve the kind of sanc- tions against tehran that could put real pressure on its teetering economy. in other words, the russians and chinese have done far less to hin- der iran than they might—or that their rhetoric would have suggested—and a great deal to help iran, while also helping their own nances. Nei- ther has shown any willingness to take tehran to task for its support of terrorism, opposition to an arab-israeli peace, and other e orts to upset the Middle eastern status quo, let alone for its human rights abuses.
Many Western experts on both countries have explained this behavior by suggesting that rus- sia and china have con icting interests when it comes to iran, and therefore, which side they
come down on will be determined by who is willing to o er them the more enticing deal. Both countries see iran’s acquisition of nuclear weap- ons as potentially dangerous, but both see the op- portunity for economic bene ts from trade with iran. For its part, russia is largely unconcerned by instability in the Middle east—in fact, problems there actually can help russia by driving up the price of its own oil exports. Moreover, for reasons of pique and pride, Moscow relishes tweaking its former superpower rival as a way of forcing Wash- ington to pay it the respect that russians feel they deserve. in private, chinese o cials will bluntly say that their strategic concern with iran is energy resources. e chinese simplistically believe that because oil is a nite resource, they must secure access to as much of it for themselves as they can (and so prevent others from consuming it) to en- sure their continued future growth. Because iran is a pariah to so many countries, tehran is will- ing to cut the kind of deals with Beijing that make chinese planners happy, in return for chinese diplomatic support. e chinese have repeated- ly told americans that a precondition of greater chinese support for harsher sanctions against iran is american cooperation on energy supplies.
The Ticking Clock
e passage of time lends urgency to the need for an e ective new iran policy. e obama admin- istration may well have the last opportunity to try many of the policy options detailed in this study. e November 2007 National intelligence esti- mate on iran’s nuclear program warned that it was possible (albeit “very unlikely”) that iran might be able to produce enough highly enriched ura- nium for a nuclear weapon by 2009, although the period 2010-2015 was a more likely time frame.12 in March 2009, admiral Mike Mullen, the chair- man of the Joint chiefs of sta , stated that based
12 National intelligence council, “iran: Nuclear intentions and capabilities.”
on the ndings of the iaea, he believed that iran already had su cient low-enriched uranium to make enough ssile material for a single nuclear warhead.13 others have disputed that assertion, but there is no question that iran will soon have at least the theoretical know-how to make a weapon and most, possibly all, of the physical components to do so as well.
once iran has acquired that capability, it may be too dangerous for the United states to attempt the military options and too late to employ either the Persuasion or engagement options to try to convince tehran to give up its nuclear program. although america’s consistent support for some form of regime change behind the iron curtain
throughout the cold War suggests that Wash- ington might still be able to pursue this strategy toward tehran in some form, the same example also suggests that this would have to be far more restrained than many of its current partisans hope for today. us it may well be the case that the obama administration represents the last chance for the United states to adopt an e ective new strategy toward iran that could eliminate the need to conduct the grand experiment of trying to see if americans can indeed “live” with a nuclear iran. With that in mind, we believe it absolutely critical that Washington and the american people have a clear sense of what each of the di erent options entails, what it would require, and what it might achieve before deciding which path to take.
13 steven r. hurst, “Mullen: iran has Fissile Materials for a Bomb,” associated Press, March 2, 2009.
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DissUaDiNG tehraN the Diplomatic options
For the new obama administration, dealing with the long-standing challenges to U.s. in- terests and security posed by the islamic repub- lic of iran will be complicated by a range of in- tractable and unfortunate factors: the increasing urgency of the timeline associated with tehran’s nuclear program, the adverse conditions for U.s. in uence in the region, and nally the curious, contradictory legacy of its predecessors’ poli- cies. While experts di er on precisely when and how tehran may cross the nuclear threshold, the scope and pace of the iranian program ensures that this issue will rank near the top of the agenda for President obama’s rst term. Moreover, the administration will confront the enduring impact of the Bush administration’s decisions to invade afghanistan and iraq, evict syria from Lebanon without building up a strong Lebanese govern- ment to replace it, and hold premature elections in the Palestinian territories, all of which have ex- panded iran’s in uence largely at the expense of america and its regional allies.
a er nearly eight years of war in afghanistan and nearly six in iraq, there are few americans look- ing for another ght in the Middle east. For that reason alone, most of the debate over what iran policy the obama administration should adopt has focused on diplomatic options. in turn, this debate has principally revolved around three in- terrelated questions:
can the threat (or application) of economic and diplomatic sanctions against iran move the regime to acquiesce to international re- quests to change its behavior? Which sanc- tions would have the greatest likelihood of doing so? how does the United states con- vince other great powers to cooperate with such a policy?
is it possible to o er positive induce- ments—either along with or instead of the negative incentives of the sanctions—to convince tehran to change its behavior? What would be the nature of these induce- ments? how does the United states o er rewards to iran that will not be taken as a sign of weakness and merely embolden the regime’s hard-liners to further dig in their heels?
how can Washington know if tehran is serious about diplomacy or is merely try- ing to draw out a process of negotiations to buy time until the regime has established a nuclear fait accompli?
e di ering answers to the above questions have crystallized into at least two contending ap- proaches toward using diplomacy as a means to convince iran to shed its nuclear program and eschew its other e orts to overturn the Middle
The Saban Center at The Brookings Institution
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eastern status quo. e rst is a revamped version of the diplomatic approach that the Bush admin- istration mostly mishandled. it would attempt to employ both positive and negative inducements to persuade the iranian leadership that changing its behavior would be both its most rewarding and least harmful course of action. is approach, which we have called a strategy of Persuasion, is the policy that the obama administration has chosen for its initial foray into iran strategy.
e second is a policy of engagement that would abandon sticks altogether in the belief that any
threats simply cause the islamic republic to dig in its heels, even if doing so means cutting o its nose to spite its face. indeed, in its purest form, a policy of engagement would take a long-term ap- proach based on the belief that by reassuring the iranians that their fears were baseless, integrating them into the global economy, and helping their people see the possibility of a better life for them- selves through a cooperative relationship with the United states and the rest of the world, tehran would slowly change its ways, much as china did. ese two diplomatic options are presented in the next two chapters.
aN oFFer iraN shoULDN’t reFUse Persuasion
to convince iran to give up its nuclear pro- gram, the George W. Bush administration in 2005 adopted a diplomatic approach that em- ployed a combination of positive inducements and the threat of economic and diplomatic sanc- tions if tehran refused to comply. By the time Bush le o ce, the policy had not yet succeeded, although it had accomplished more than many of its critics had predicted. Many americans believe that this approach could be revived, re- vised, and made to succeed under a new admin- istration.
immediately a er his election, President obama himself indicated that this would be the starting point of his administration’s approach to iran.14 since then, the administration has nished its policy review and has adopted a multifaceted ver- sion of this option.
Like all iran policy options, this approach faces considerable hurdles. For this option, the rst hurdle is the legacy of the Bush administration’s e orts and demonstrating that it failed not be- cause of inherent aws in the strategy, but be- cause of poor implementation. ose who favor
Persuasion (sometimes infelicitously referred to as a policy of “carrots and sticks”) believe that the Bush administration hamstrung the process by combining it with elements of other policy op- tions—particularly regime change—that ran at cross-purposes. it also eschewed key diplomatic bargains that might have secured greater interna- tional support and refused to put up meaningful positive incentives that could have had a greater impact on the actions of both tehran and the rest of the international community.
Persuasion also requires building a broad interna- tional commitment to a set of powerful sanctions on iran to punish it for noncompliance at a time when many countries do not see the threat from iran as a priority, and some have reason to oppose such treatment. Moreover, in the nal analysis, this option (and the engagement option as well) rests on the willingness and ability of the leaders of iran to sort out their politics in such a way that they agree to comply with the international com- munity. iran’s habitual pugnacity toward external pressure and the Byzantine internal politics of the clerical regime mean that any such e ort inevita- bly begins with a hard row to hoe.
14 interview with President-elect Barack obama, Meet the Press, NBc, December 7, 2008, available at <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/ id/28097635>, downloaded on January 19, 2009.
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is policy is intended to convince the govern- ment of iran to change its behavior on issues of critical importance to the United states. it is not intended to try to change the government of iran. shortly a er taking o ce, President obama at- tempted to underline this point in his Nowruz (iranian New Year) message to the people of iran on March 19, 2009, in which he assured iranians that “ e United states wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.”15 (emphasis added.) in other words, the president was signaling that he was ready to accept the current iranian regime, not merely the iranian people, back into the international com- munity if the regime were willing to work con- structively with the United states and the rest of the international community.
a key question that the new U.s. administration will have to address regarding the goals of the Per- suasion approach toward iran is whether to focus only on convincing iran to cease its nuclear pro- gram or also to insist that iran cease its support for terrorism and other anti-status-quo activi- ties (particularly its e orts to hinder arab-israeli peacemaking).
although there are risks in iran’s mere possession of a nuclear weapons-making capability, the most likely threat is that once iran is believed to have such a capability, it will pursue its regional anti- status-quo agenda more aggressively than in the past. speci cally, it may provide greater support to terrorist groups and Palestinian rejectionists, it may again attempt to subvert conservative arab regimes, it may provide arms to countries and non-state actors ghting the United states and its allies, and it may pursue a range of other actions
all intended to undermine the american position, topple or “Finlandize” unfriendly governments, and otherwise reorder the region more to its own liking. even with a nuclear capability, tehran may still not achieve these aims, but a greater willing- ness to try will nevertheless result in more vio- lence, mayhem, radicalism, and crises in a region that does not need any more.
in other words, a critical threat behind iran’s pur- suit of a nuclear weapons capability is that it will intensify iran’s anti-status-quo activities, which many americans would argue should necessitate an e ort not merely to convince tehran to halt its nuclear program but also its support for violent extremist groups and other anti-status-quo activi- ties. indeed, american sanctions on iran (at least prior to 2001) were always explicitly intended to convince the iranians to give up all of these prob- lematic behaviors, not merely their nuclear pro- gram. as such, this policy would mirror the goals of the successful american policy toward Qad- ha ’s Libya, which is o en seen as a model for how a similar approach should be applied to iran.
The american Dilemma
ere is a critical complication in expanding the policy goals to encompass iranian behavior be- yond its nuclear program: it could undermine the international support that is the sine qua non of the option. ere is broad agreement, at least in prin- ciple, among most of the international community, and certainly all of the great powers, on the need to prevent iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. is o en breaks down in practice, but it still provides an important foundation that the United states can build upon to pursue this part of its policy. however, far fewer states are troubled by iran’s destabilizing activities in the region or even
15 White house, “Videotaped remarks by the President in celebration of Nowruz,” March 19, 2009, available at <http://www.whitehouse.gov/ the_press_o ce/ViDeotaPeD-reMarKs-BY-the-PresiDeNt-iN-ceLeBratioN-oF-NoWrUZ/>, downloaded on april 6, 2009.
its support for terrorist groups. certainly few be- lieve these actions troublesome enough to merit the kind of harsh sanctions that may be needed to pressure tehran to abandon them.
consequently, focusing purely on the nuclear program would be the surest path toward build- ing a wide and strong international consensus against iran, but this might not be su cient from the american perspective to secure U.s. needs regarding iranian behavior. Moreover, many americans may conclude that if the United states is going to provide iran with the kind of major bene ts that the iranians will no doubt demand to halt their nuclear program, Washington ought to get more from tehran in return. on the other hand, if Washington insists on including iranian misbehavior beyond its nuclear program, it will be more di cult to secure the kind of broad inter- national commitment to impose harsh penalties on iran for failure to comply that probably will be necessary for the policy to succeed.
e Persuasion approach holds out the potential to achieve its goals relatively quickly—conceivably in a matter of months—although a time frame of several years seems more likely. at least in theory, the United states and its allies might agree very quickly on a package of bene ts to o er tehran, as well as a series of new penalties to impose on iran if it refused the deal. Likewise, iran might quickly decide that the deal is a good one and accept it, and then things would move forward relatively quick- ly. e reality, however, is that both processes are likely to involve very complicated internal politi- cal and external diplomatic negotiations, even if they are successful. consequently, it seems unre- alistic to expect this approach to produce actual success in less than a few years. however, if there are early indications of progress on both sides, the expectation of success may produce many positive ripples long before a deal is signed. For instance,
should the iranians conclude that they want to accept whatever the international community is o ering, they may decide to unilaterally shi as- sets away from their nuclear program so as not to waste high-value resources on a program that is soon to be shut down.
one critical challenge to a Persuasion approach that relies on positive and negative incentives to redirect iran on key issues is that it will be ex- tremely di cult to know when the policy has failed. e iranian regime, as a collective entity, is unlikely to declare that it will never agree to any o er from the international community or negotiate with the United states (although some individual iranian leaders may claim as much). tehran seems to understand that at-out refus- als, like those preferred by President ahmadine- jad, win tehran nothing and so antagonize other nations that they build support for further sanc- tions. consequently, even if the regime does de- cide to reject any new o er from the international community, it probably will feign interest and simply try to prolong the negotiations. indeed, a number of iranian leaders have already signaled a willingness to sit down with the United states and discuss the di erences between us, but so far this appears to re ect a tactical decision to talk to Washington, not a strategic decision to com- promise. Moreover, many iranians will likely cal- culate that German, russian, chinese, and other foreign o cials will use any hint of iranian ex- ibility to argue against the imposition of further sanctions, and so even if tehran has no intention of agreeing to compromise, it will keep tossing out hints that it will to buttress the arguments of those desperate to avoid additional sanctions.
Because it may be impossible for the interna- tional community to recognize when this policy has failed, it will be critical to place clear time restrictions on the negotiations and require iran to take positive, discernible steps to demonstrate that it is not merely attempting to prolong these
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
negotiations to ward o further sanctions. (We return to this matter later in this chapter to sketch out what such mechanisms might entail.)
overview of the Policy
e core concept of the Persuasion approach re- mains the idea of simultaneously o ering iran a series of compelling rewards for giving up its nuclear program (and possibly ceasing its other deleterious behavior as well) and threatening to impose harsh penalties on iran for refusing to do so. in essence, it means o ering iran a “deal,” but one that also contains an implicit ultimatum: change your ways and you will be rewarded; don’t and you will be punished.
Because, a er three decades of sanctions, the United states has virtually no ties to iran it could threaten to cut, the pressure on iran must come principally from other members of the interna- tional community—particularly iran’s leading trade partners in europe, russia, china, india, and elsewhere.16 is makes the Persuasion op- tion wholly dependent on international coopera- tion to make it work. it is simply not possible for the United states to pursue this policy unilater- ally. For this reason, the UN security council is the ideal mechanism through which to pursue the policy, and the Bush administration did enjoy some important successes there. it is less feasible but still possible to pursue the strategy outside the United Nations, and the Bush administration was able to secure some modest cooperation from the european Union and america’s asian trade part- ners outside of the UN framework.
Because the Bush administration did eventually adopt a version of this policy, the key question
that supporters of a Persuasion approach— including the obama administration now that it has opted for this strategy—must answer is what can be done di erently so that a new version can succeed where the last one failed? e heart of the critique of the Bush administration’s e orts is that it was never willing to o er iran meaningful positive inducements, both because many admin- istration hard-liners rejected on principle the idea of any “concessions,” and because the administra- tion concurrently pursued a limited policy of re- gime change, which militated against taking any steps that could alleviate iranian problems.
is failure to address the inherent contradictions in the Bush administration’s approach to Persua- sion undermined its incentives-based approach in two ways. First, it meant that iranians them- selves did not believe that they were getting that much for giving up their nuclear program (let alone reversing their foreign policy more gener- ally). certainly, any potential bene ts were not ammunition enough for those iranians interested in their economic fortunes to win the policy ght with hard-liners determined to preserve the nu- clear program.
second, the meager bene ts the Bush adminis- tration was willing to o er failed to impress eu- ropean and east asian publics. american allies in europe and east asia are critical to an approach that relies heavily on sanctions both because they have typically had extensive trade relationships with iran and because they can furnish exactly the kinds of capital, technology, and markets that tehran needs to address its economic problems. Moreover, if the United states is unable to secure the cooperation of its closest allies, it is hard to imagine that it could win over russia, china,
16 one area in which the Bush 43 administration excelled was in nding creative new methods of imposing unilateral sanctions on iran by targeting its links to international nancial networks. ere are still ties in this area that the United states could cut and that would in ict real pain on iran—although they also could spark con ict with other nations. consequently, though such unilateral actions are possible and would have a real impact, it is still the case that having european, east asian, and south asian countries adopt the kind of sanctions that the U.s. invoked in the 1990s would have a far greater impact on the iranian economy.
india, and other countries with di erent agendas. if the europeans and Japanese are on board with the United states, these other countries must take notice; if the United states stands alone, they can ignore us.
e populations of many U.s. allies were suspi- cious of the Bush administration, believing (not incorrectly) that it remained committed to re- gime change and was simply attempting to give an o er to tehran that it would never accept so that Washington could then use an iranian rejec- tion as justi cation for either implementing crip- pling sanctions or moving to war. in addition, it was generally the case that the publics of the european and east asian democracies were only willing to sanction iran for refusing to comply if they believed that tehran had been o ered a deal that was so good that only a regime determined to acquire nuclear weapons would refuse. Because the Bush administration’s incentives were never big enough to satisfy the european and east asian concerns, few of these governments were will- ing to consider more than modest punishments against tehran for refusing the o er.
at this point, iran remains very much on the wrong track, pushing hard to acquire an enrich- ment capability, heedless of the international con- sensus against it. Within the scope of the Persua- sion approach, there is no question that what is most needed are new, much harsher sanctions to convince iran to stop, reconsider, and hopefully change course. Paradoxically, however, the only way that the United states is likely to secure inter- national support for new sanctions is if it o ers up much greater rewards to iran for doing the right thing.
Upping the ante
e incentives o ered to iran will need to be de- termined through a process of negotiation with both iran and america’s allies and partners in the
wider international community. in many cases, these incentives are likely to be highly complex. consequently, only the broad contours can be sketched out. in all probability, these bene ts will fall into four broad categories: nuclear energy and technology, economic inducements, security guarantees, and political incentives.
Nuclear energy and Technology
on the nuclear front, the previous o ers to iran have included attractive terms to allow iran to build light-water reactors to generate power and arrangements for iran to participate in an inter- national program to master the technology of enrichment. Light-water reactors can be more easily monitored, are harder to convert quickly to military purposes, and would be under arrange- ments whereby spent fuel would be returned to the providing country so that it could not be employed for bomb making. ese terms would have to remain as part of a new o er: since iran has repeatedly claimed that it wants only technol- ogy and energy from its nuclear program, tehran would have to be provided with the opportunity to meet these needs regardless of whether these motives are genuine.
e much thornier question is whether the inter- national community should be willing to allow iranians a limited enrichment capability within their own country. if this is allowed, it will leave the iranians a fairly rapid “breakout capabil- ity”—meaning that tehran could switch over to a military program and begin manufacturing ssile material for nuclear weapons fairly quickly. For these reasons, a number of european countries have stated categorically that they will never agree to any deal with tehran that allows it to retain such a capacity. on the other hand, the iranian re- gime has steadfastly rejected any demand to halt its program short of acquiring a complete enrich- ment capability and has repeatedly told its people that acquiring this capability is absolutely vital to their future prosperity. consequently, it may not
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
be possible to reach a deal with iran that does not allow it to claim that it retained an enrichment capability of some kind.
When the United states and its international partners meet to discuss this particular issue, a key consideration should be the extent, condi- tions, and intrusiveness of any inspections and monitoring regime that iran would have to accept as part of the deal. simply put, the more intrusive and comprehensive the inspections regime, the more willing the international community ought to be to compromise on this issue. Nevertheless, because the potential for a breakout capability is so worrisome, the international community should insist on an iraq-style inspections regime with a dedicated organization (perhaps within the iaea, but de nitely with a separate, much larger sta and budget) to ensure that the monitoring of an iranian enrichment program remains active and vigilant.
especially given the fragile state of iran’s econo- my, economic inducements are likely to be both the most straightforward and most important element of a new international overture to iran. Under the Bush administration, tehran was o ered membership in the World trade orga- nization, the li ing of international sanctions (most of which exert only modest pressure on the iranian economy), and the resumption of its presanctions trade with europe and Japan. ese were not enough to convince iran to take the deal.
consequently, a new strategy based on the Per- suasion approach will have to hold out the prom- ise of much greater economic rewards. ese should include:
e prospect of support from other inter- national nancial institutions such as the World Bank.
e li ing of not only international sanc- tions but unilateral sanctions against iran as well, particularly the comprehensive unilateral sanctions imposed by the United states.
a universal settlement of all claims between iran and the United states (which include monies owed for some iranian arms pur- chases, the freezing of assets, and other matters that the iranians believe constitute a sizable amount of money.)
e provision of positive inducements for expanded international trade and invest- ment in iran, including trade credits and investment guarantees for foreign rms putting capital into iran.
Development assistance for iranian agri- culture, infrastructure, education, energy, and environmental modernization.
e li ing of american unilateral sanctions against iran—which the Bush administration was never willing to o er explicitly because of its attachment to regime change—could have a ma- jor impact on iranian thinking because the aver- age iranian and the regime’s chief economic of- cials ardently desire it.
although tehran denies it in public, the interna- tional community assumes that iran’s pursuit of a nuclear enrichment capability is meant, at least in part, to deter attacks against iran. consequently, another set of positive incentives that the inter- national community will likely have to o er are guarantees for the security of the country and its regime.
Many americans have suggested that the United states pledge not to attack iran, as President John F. Kennedy did for cuba as part of the resolution
of the cuban Missile crisis. such a pledge may be necessary, but Washington should not assume that it will be su cient. it is likely that tehran will want more concrete actions by the United states (and other countries) if it is to give up the safety of a potential nuclear arsenal—even a theoretical one. it is critical that the international communi- ty, and especially the United states, provide such concrete demonstrations of good faith both be- cause it is unlikely that the iranian people will be swayed otherwise, and because it can assuage the residual fears of european and asian publics that the United states is simply using the diplomatic process to set up a military operation against iran.
e more di cult process will be to diminish the conventional military threat posed to iran by american forces in the Middle east and indian ocean. e United states has vital interests in the Persian Gulf region as that part of the world is both economically vital and politically unstable. consequently, even a er the United states draws down its presence in iraq, it is highly likely that it will still maintain military forces in the Gulf, and those forces (which can be quickly reinforced from other regions) will always constitute a threat to iran.
e United states could make unilateral conces- sions to tehran, like agreeing to deploy no more than one aircra carrier battle group in the Gulf or arabian sea at any time. however, tehran is unlikely to view this as much of a concession because of how easy it would be for the United states to break that agreement if it ever chose to. e problem is further compounded by the fact that the United states will not be willing to go much beyond that (assuming it is willing to go even that far) for fear of jeopardizing its ability to respond to other problems in the fragile Gulf region. Finally, few americans will want to re- strict Washington’s ability to employ force in the Gulf without reciprocal moves by iran. For all of those reasons, a new security architecture in the
Persian Gulf constructed from a process of secu- rity discussions, con dence-building measures, and (eventually) real arms control agreements is probably the only realistic way to meet iran’s legitimate security concerns in a manner that would be palatable to the United states and its al- lies in the region. us the United states ought to be willing to o er the inauguration of just such a process (using the commission on security and cooperation in europe as a starting point), which would hold out the potential for iran to secure constraints on the deployment and operation of american military forces in the region in return for their agreement to take on di erent but com- mensurate limitations on their own forces.
iranians of virtually every stripe aspire for their country to play a leadership role in the Middle east. indeed, many seek to dominate their imme- diate neighbors as did the Pahlavi shahs in their day. iran’s nuclear program appears to be part of that drive, although the explanation for how it would bolster iranian prestige or power, and to what end, varies from person to person. Whatev- er the rationale, convincing iran to agree to a deal that would end its nuclear program—and, ideally, its other anti-status-quo activities as well—will probably also entail conditions that allow iran to ful ll at least some of these aspirations some other way.
a key question will be whether iranians are ready to be accepted as a legitimate participant in the in- ternational politics of the Middle east, but not the dominant state in the region, as so many iranians want. again, views on this vary in tehran, but it is just unclear what the iranian leadership would be willing to accept, and direct negotiations with iran should help to ascertain whether there is room for compromise. Under no circumstances, however, should the United states grant iran a position of dominance, nor should we leave any ambiguity about what we see as iran’s role in the region. our
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allies in the Gcc are terri ed that Washington hopes to resurrect the alliance with a domineering iran that the Johnson and Nixon administrations tried to use to keep the peace of the Gulf. con- sequently, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that accepting iran as a state with legitimate security concerns and a political role to play does not mean granting tehran regional hegemony.
here as well, the idea of creating a security archi- tecture for the Persian Gulf like that of the com- mission on security and cooperation in europe would be a good place to start. it would provide exactly such a vehicle for the iranians to have their legitimate security concerns heard, and even assuaged, by the other Gulf powers, but it would also make clear that tehran was no more than equal to the other states of the region. it would not mean giving the iranians whatever they want, but it would mean giving them the opportunity to have their voices heard and be included as mem- bers of “the club.”
although the process of engaging tehran is dealt with at much greater length in the next chapter, it is important to note that it also has a role in the Persuasion approach. First, it will be extremely di cult to conduct this strategy without a more expansive dialogue between the United states and iran than the weak, long-distance line that has existed for the past ve years (if not the past 30 years). Before proposing packages of incentives to iran, the United states will need to get a better sense of what iran wants and what it needs. o ers will likely have to be re ned and adapted through a process of negotiation before they have any hope of becoming agreements. e United states may also need to convey to iran more directly the seriousness of the penalties that it would pay for refusing to comply. all of this would be greatly facilitated by direct engagement between Wash- ington and tehran.
Moreover, a critical element of the Persuasion option is for the United states to demonstrate that it wants better relations with iran and is willing to do everything to achieve this short of accepting iran’s nuclear ambitions, support for violent extremist groups, and e orts to overturn the regional status quo. e Bush administra- tion’s refusal to speak to iran directly conveyed precisely the opposite conviction—and so tend- ed to reinforce the perceptions of both iranians and others (including europeans, Japanese, rus- sians, chinese, and indians) that Washington was not sincere and was merely going through the motions of reaching out to tehran in the hope that tehran would reject the o er so that Washington could then pursue a more aggres- sive policy. e goal should rather be to con- vince the iranians that the United states wants them to do the right thing, not to trick them into doing the wrong thing to make more aggressive policy options more viable. consequently, this approach should express a clear desire for direct engagement, not only to facilitate negotiations but also to demonstrate good will toward iran so as to make a cooperative resolution of the cur- rent situation more likely.
in this sense, engagement with iran is a tactic of the Persuasion approach, at least initially. in this policy option, engaging iran is meant to fa- cilitate a deal that would resolve all of Washing- ton’s many disputes with tehran and give iran the chance to change its behavior in fundamental ways that would allow the United states and its international partners to bring iran back into the community of nations. if iran accepts that deal and fundamentally changes its behavior, then the tactic of engagement shi s easily into a strategy of engagement. once iran has demonstrated its goodwill and has chosen the path of compromise with the United states and the wider internation- al community, that same process of engagement would be expanded into the kind of strategic en- gagement envisioned in the next chapter.
Preparing to Bring the hammer Down
a critical element of the Persuasion option, and largely what sets it apart from the engagement option, is the need to secure international agree- ment on a series of painful sanctions to be im- posed on iran if it turns down the package of bene ts. e sanctions need to be made clear to iran as the punishment for refusing to take the deal at the same time it is pro ered. in addition, the negotiations within the international commu- nity on the sanctions need to be an integral part of working out the details of the bene ts so that the United states and other countries more willing to sanction iran (like France) can trade bene ts for sanctions with those states less inclined to penal- ize iran for its recalcitrance.
ese sanctions need to be more painful than those imposed on iran so far, but they probably should be graduated—meaning that they can start out less painful and grow more onerous over time if iran continues to refuse the deal. a graduated approach of ratcheting up the pressure on iran will make many countries more comfortable with the process since it would mean that iran would have ample opportunity to reverse course before the most painful measures are imposed.
so far, most of the UN security council sanctions on iran have had little impact because they have targeted the travel and foreign assets of individu- als and iranian entities connected to its nuclear program. e nancial sanctions imposed on iran both multilaterally and unilaterally by the United states and a number of european coun- tries have been far more threatening to tehran, and many iranians seem to believe that they are contributing to iran’s current crop of serious eco- nomic problems.17
is demonstrates that future sanctions against iran must be directed primarily against the ira- nian economy. is is iran’s achilles’ heel, and little else has meaningful impact on the political debate of the iranian leadership. in particular, new sanctions on iran should focus on further curtailing iranian nancial activities and prevent- ing the foreign investment that iranians desper- ately need. Going a er iran’s ability to secure in- surance and reinsurance from international rms could further strain the country’s nances. some direct trade sanctions might also be appropriate, but they will need to be designed very carefully. Prohibiting trade can have an immediate impact on the civilian population, and if it causes deaths or illness (especially among children), can quickly undermine international support for the sanc- tions, as was the case with the UN sanctions on iraq in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, there are some important excep- tions to these rules. For instance, one noneco- nomic trade sanction that ought to be on the ta- ble is an international ban on arms sales to iran. similarly, if the international community wants to continue to punish speci c iranian institutions rather than the entire system, a better candidate than entities like the revolutionary Guards would be the massive bonyads, so-called charitable or- ganizations established a er the revolution—that control as much as half of the economic activity in iran and are among the worst sources of the endemic corruption in iran. ese control doz- ens, if not hundreds, of subsidiaries that, along with quasi-state-controlled companies, dominate the iranian economy and serve as critical sources of gra for various regime o cials. sanctioning these entities by preventing them from conducting international nancial transactions would not only hit at institutions of far greater importance
17 see, for example, robin Wright, “stuart Levy’s War: e sanctions at could coax iran,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, october 31, 2008; Laura secor, “Letter from tehran: e rationalist,” New Yorker, February 9, 2009, esp. pp. 36-38.
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to the regime but would also take aim at organiza- tions widely loathed by the iranian people, a rare and fortuitous circumstance in the history of eco- nomic sanctions.
Weighing oil and Gas Sanctions
Potentially the most devastating sanctions the international community might levy against iran would focus on its hydrocarbon economy. iran is highly dependent on its oil exports for rev- enue and its gasoline imports for transportation. Prohibiting either one could cripple the iranian economy and cause massive problems through- out iranian society. For this reason, many have advocated such sanctions as being the only sure way to exert enough pressure to motivate the ira- nian regime to give up its nuclear program.
is logic may well be correct, but there are real risks if it proves otherwise. e oil market re- mains volatile right now, and the loss of iran’s 2.5 million barrels per day of exports could push oil prices back up to economically damaging levels. For this reason, there is little international ap- petite for preventing iran from exporting oil. By the same token, if the international community were to prohibit (or even limit) iranian gasoline imports, there is a real risk that the regime would respond by suspending its oil exports, causing the same problem. a er all, from tehran’s perspec- tive, the restriction of gasoline imports could risk causing the collapse of the iranian economy and thus the regime itself. in such circumstances, ira- nian leaders may see little point in restraint be- cause they may not feel that the loss of their oil revenue is as important if they cannot purchase one of their most essential imports. or, they may calculate that the only way that they can persuade the international community to give up a gasoline embargo is to do the one thing that would threat- en the economy of the international community.
Prohibiting gasoline sales to iran could also be so draconian that it would actually undermine the
sanctions altogether. as noted above, it takes long periods of time for economic sanctions to have their impact and persuade a recalcitrant regime to take an action it hopes to avoid. is means that for sanctions to work, they must be sustain- able for months or years. however, as history has shown—most dramatically in the case of iraq un- der saddam husayn—sanctions that are consid- ered excessively harsh and are believed to be caus- ing widespread malnutrition, starvation, medical problems, and ultimately the death of innocent people (especially children) are unsustainable, regardless of the accuracy of those perceptions. if the international community were to cut o ira- nian gasoline imports, it is virtually axiomatic that the iranians would claim that innocents were dy- ing, for example, because food could not be pro- duced or distributed, homes could not be heated, and ambulances could not rush seriously ill people to the hospital. ese claims might prove entirely false, but the sight of dead children whose deaths are said to be related to the sanctions would likely undermine international support for the sanc- tions, regardless of the iranian regime’s behavior.
For these reasons, sanctions against iran’s hydro- carbon economy, particularly its vulnerable gaso- line imports, probably should be used only as part of a nal set of sanctions at the end of a longer process of ratcheting up the pressure on tehran— if they are employed at all.
Nail Down the Sanctions Up Front
an important lesson from the experiences of the Bush administration on iran, as well as the clin- ton administration’s e orts to deal with saddam husayn, is the need to agree on speci c sanc- tions and announce them as warnings long before they are to come into e ect. although the great powers all agreed during the Bush 43 years that iran should not be allowed to acquire a uranium enrichment capability, and that it should be punished for refusing to comply with various UN security council demands embodied in
resolutions enacted under chapter Vii of the UN charter (which makes them binding upon all member states), whenever it came time to actual- ly impose such sanctions on iran, reluctant coun- tries were able to weaken the actual resolutions to the point where they had little bite.
it is always easier to agree on harsher sanctions if the negotiations are conducted well before any sanctions are likely to be imposed. e key is then to codify those sanctions—and ideally write them into the very resolutions making the demands—so that they cannot be watered down when it comes time to impose them. of course, the iranians and their supporters would doubtless try even then, but the best chance that the United states has of secur- ing harsh international sanctions is unquestionably to codify them and secure public, international consensus on them long before they actually need to be implemented. codifying the sanctions to be incurred for failure to comply at each step of the process is also critically important so that the ira- nians have a clear sense of the pain they will su er if they fail to comply. only in this way and only if the sanctions were very painful would those irani- ans arguing for accommodation with the interna- tional community be able to demonstrate that the price iran would pay for continued intransigence would be too high. e repeated ability of iran’s al- lies in the security council to water down sanc- tions resolutions has convinced most of the iranian leadership that their allies will be able to do so in the future. only if tehran sees that the sanctions are daunting and were agreed to ahead of time would it be likely to reconsider its course of action.
George Perkovich of the carnegie endowment has compellingly argued that another critical element of any new sanctions on iran is to tie them, to the extent possible, to detectable iranian
actions. e more it is the case that new sanctions are triggered by iranian actions (with both the ac- tions and the sanctions to be imposed agreed to beforehand), the harder it will be for those who op- pose further sanctions to avoid them. as Perkov- ich points out, because iran has endlessly insisted that its nuclear program is intended only for ci- vilian energy purposes, it ought to be possible for the UN security council to forbid certain actions that are only consistent with nuclear weapons pro- duction and demand other actions that are only consistent with nuclear energy production. harsh sanctions should be used as penalties for iran’s un- willingness to do either. is scenario would make it very hard for the russians, chinese, and others to argue against the penalties.
some examples of iranian actions that could be tied to speci c sanctions include:
an iranian withdrawal from the Non-Pro- liferation treaty, which could only be inter- preted as intent to build weapons with the uranium they have enriched.
iranian unwillingness to sign the additional protocol to the Non-Proliferation treaty, which provides for much more aggressive and comprehensive inspections, and which tehran has repeatedly said it has accepted, although no iranian government has ever actually rati ed it.
Further enrichment of low-enriched ura- nium (LeU), which is adequate for energy generation, to highly enriched uranium (heU), which is really only necessary for nuclear weapons.18
a failure to convert the LeU that iran now possesses into fuel rods for reactors. e
18 heU does have some other esoteric uses, but it is not necessary for iran’s declared purposes. and given the danger of heU as an explosive, neither the iranians nor any of their allies could credibly claim that they had a peaceful need for heU that justi ed its production.
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
security council, working through the iaea, should demand that iran convert all of its LeU into fuel rods—which ought to be acceptable to tehran given its claims that it wants nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons.
continued storage of LeU near iran’s cen- trifuge cascades—where it could easily be enriched to heU for weapons. indeed, the iaea should demand that iran estab- lish a storage facility for all of its LeU far from its centrifuge plants, with appropriate safeguards and regular inspections by the iaea to account for all of the LeU iran has produced.19
Under circumstances in which tehran may be attempting to sow confusion and create ambigu- ity, this is an extremely useful approach to the problem of how to impose sanctions on iran for its misbehavior. however, it cannot be the only method of imposing new sanctions on iran. as noted above, negotiations over a deal cannot be allowed to become a means by which iran simply avoids any penalties. consequently, other sanc- tions will have to be tied to certain deadlines— iran must accept either key pieces of or the entire deal being o ered by the international commu- nity by a prescribed time, or it will face other pen- alties. otherwise, tehran may have no incentive to ever take the deal or reject it, and it will simply be able to keep playing for time.
The ends, Not the Means
Because it will be di cult for a Persuasion ap- proach to work under any circumstances, it would be preferable for the United states and its allies to concentrate purely on the outcome of the process and less (or not at all) on the process itself. What
is important is securing international support and convincing the iranians to accept the deal on of- fer; everything else ought to be incidental from an american perspective.
some americans have argued that the deal ought to be part of a “grand bargain” between tehran and the West (or the whole international commu- nity) because iran will only be able to make the necessary concessions in the context of securing its needs on a host of other issues. others have argued that such a grand bargain would simply be too much for the iranian system to handle, and so the United states and the international commu- nity should instead seek incremental agreements and/or deals on various pieces of the whole, both of which could be more easily digested by teh- ran. Ultimately, it should be le to the iranians to decide which approach is most palatable for them, and the United states and its allies should make very clear that they are amenable to either approach. it should not matter how the United states gets to the outcome, only that it gets there. Given how many hurdles the United states will face, it should not add more unnecessarily.
For the same reasons, the United states should be willing to allow the iranians to de ne who and how they meet, as well as where. some analysts argue that americans must be present at the table when o ers are put to the iranians to demonstrate U.s. commitment to them. others have insisted that an american presence at the table would make it impossible for tehran to accede to any such o er. again, all that matters is whether the Iranians want americans at the table.
e one related element of process that does transcend the general rule that the United states should focus on function, not form, is whether the o er should be made to tehran secretly or
19 e authors thank George Perkovich both for the general idea and the speci c examples.
publicly. again, there is debate among americans and others, with one side arguing that a public of- fer would spark iranian nationalism and virtually force the regime to reject it, and the other coun- tering that a secret o er would allow opponents within the regime to kill it behind closed doors and then mislead the public about its contents.
on this issue, those who argue for a public dec- laration of the contents of the o er have a strong case. in previous iterations, regime hard-liners have been able to prevail in the political debates over various international o ers to tehran partly because the iranian public never really under- stood what was being proposed. since one of the critical elements of this o er is the idea that the deal will be so attractive to the vast number of iranians that the regime will not feel able to turn it down (and that european publics will likewise see it as a deal that no iranian regime with benign intentions could possibly reject), it is vitally im- portant that the terms be made public. Keeping the contents of the deal secret would undermine the central principle of this option.
at said, it would still be consistent with this policy option to initiate contacts in secret, if that were preferable to tehran, conduct negotiations secretly, and even make the initial o er to the leadership in private. however, tehran should understand that in these circumstances, the inter- national community would only keep the terms of the o er secret for a set period of time, and if the leadership did not come back with a positive response before that deadline, the terms would be made public. indeed, this could be one way to impose time limits to prevent the iranians from simply stringing along the negotiations.
The Cape and the Sword
e question of whether negotiations with iran should be overt or covert is related to another aspect of the Persuasion approach: what to play
up and what to play down. For a variety of rea- sons, many iranians are extremely sensitive to their public treatment by the United states. us how Washington (and its international partners) describes its policy toward iran, what it chooses to publicize, and what it tries to keep private are all important. Unfortunately, the obama admin- istration has already taken some important mis- steps in this respect.
When threatened, iranian leaders tend to respond defensively, rejecting the threats unthinkingly re- gardless of their content or the potential impact on iran. especially since the 1978 revolution, tehran has frequently cut o its own nose to spite its face when threatened. Moreover, because of the iranian regime’s deep insecurity—both liter- ally and guratively—the only way that a policy of Persuasion can succeed (in terms of securing iranian agreement to a deal that would preclude its acquisition of a nuclear arsenal, terminate its support for violent extremist groups, and end its e orts to overturn the Middle eastern status quo) is if the iranian regime is able to claim that it won a great victory from the deal. as long as the Unit- ed states gets what it needs, Washington should be ne with allowing the iranians to crow all they want, because that will be a necessary precondi- tion for achieving american aims.
is necessity should shape america’s public statements about its iran policy as long as a Per- suasion approach is being pursued, as the obama administration has been doing so far. Quite sim- ply, the United states should emphasize its desire for engagement and rapprochement, promote all of the bene ts to the iranian people from agree- ing to do so, and talk about its desire for a coop- erative, long-term relationship between these two great nations. at the same time, the administra- tion initially should say nothing in public about the sanctions and other punishments that will be in icted on iran should it fail to accept the deal. First, it is self-evident that if iran does not accept
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the president’s outstretched hand, the United states will adopt a di erent approach that will not be so friendly. second, iran is going to nd out about the sanctions anyway—tehran has various sources who will report on the negotiations between the United states and other key members of the inter- national community over what sanctions to im- pose on iran for failing to comply or engage, trying to draw out negotiations, or taking actions clearly intended to advance a nuclear weapons program. eventually, those threats would need to be made public, but for the obama administration, there is still time for that. ird, because the regime will not agree to be seen as bowing to pressure, issuing constant public threats, as obama administration personnel have done in their rst weeks in o ce, simply undermines the ability to get the iranians to the table (let alone agree to the compromises that would make a deal possible) and does not materi- ally advance any american interests.
on a related note, any american administration (including the current one) that intends to pur- sue the Persuasion approach should never utter the term “carrot and stick” in public. although it is simply a metaphor, even a cliché, that ameri- cans use to describe any diplomatic policy that employs both positive and negative incentives, be- cause the metaphor is derived from the way one handles a donkey, it is o en o ensive to the object of the policy. at is certainly the case for iran, which has repeatedly bridled at the term, includ- ing when President-elect obama employed it in a televised interview.20
is too must be kept in perspective. Ultimately, rapprochement between longtime adversaries only becomes possible when both sides have made the unilateral calculation that is in their own best in- terests to end the squabble. When both have done so, the rapprochement typically takes place, and it
20 obama, Meet the Press, December 7, 2008.
typically takes place despite any number of mis- steps and o ensive statements by people on both sides. e two countries inevitably overlook these slights because it is in their own best interests to do so. is is a critical point to keep in mind when considering the potential for a U.s.-iranian deal. countries do not make peace as a favor to one another; they do it out of a cold calculation that it serves their interests. any rapprochement that can be derailed by obnoxious rhetoric is not the genu- ine item. During the american reconciliation with china in the 1970s and 1980s, and with india in the 1990s and 2000s, reactionaries on both sides red o outrageous verbal broadsides at the other country to try to derail the process. Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi all chose to continue to im- prove relations because of the bene ts to each of them of doing so. Until iran decides that improved relations with the United states are in its interest, it does not matter what the United states says, there will be no rapprochement; and once the iranians make that decision, a ronts to its dignity will lose much (if not all) of their sting.
Nevertheless, words do have impact, and they can certainly complicate a delicate rapprochement— even once both countries have crossed the crucial rubicon of seeing the rapprochement as in their interests. ese complications rarely a ect the ul- timate outcome, but they certainly can a ect the timing of the rapprochement. Given that amer- ica’s problems with iran are closely tied to mat- ters of timing, Washington should try as hard as it can to not prolong this process by saying care- less things that would make it harder for tehran to cooperate. indeed, the smartest thing that an american administration pursuing the Persua- sion approach could do, would be to announce that it was pursuing a policy of pure engagement instead, playing up all of the positives and the de- sire for a cooperative relationship, and pushing
WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
the sanctions and all of the threats well into the background until it becomes clear that the irani- ans are interested in a deal.21
as its name implies, the requirements of the Per- suasion approach are principally diplomatic and secondarily political. Military risks and economic costs are both likely to be relatively low. in addition to those requirements already mentioned (signi - cant economic incentives, the possibility of com- promising on enrichment, the need for a highly intrusive inspection regime, and others), the most important and potentially most onerous require- ment of this option is the need to strike diplomatic deals with russia, china, and potentially other countries to secure their support for the new o er to iran. in particular, the United states would need their agreement to impose crippling sanctions on iran if tehran continues to refuse the o er.
a critical failing of the Bush administration was its unwillingness to prioritize among foreign pol- icy issues and make sacri ces on issues of lesser importance to secure gains on those of greater importance. as a result, it never really tested whether reluctant countries like russia and chi- na could be brought around to support tougher moves against iran if tehran failed to accede to UN security council demands. a key element of Persuasion would be prioritization—putting iran ahead of other considerations and then making the necessary trade-o s to secure the support of russia, china, india, and other relevant countries.
although the russians certainly make money o their relationship with tehran, they have repeatedly stated that iran should not be allowed
to develop an enrichment capability and privately signaled their willingness to cooperate with the United states on iran in return for american con- cessions elsewhere—probably on issues of greater importance to Moscow, like missile defense, Geor- gia, chechnya, Belarus, Bosnia, Kosovo, and/or Ukraine. steven Pifer has suggested that an easy compromise the United states could make would be to slow down the installation of ballistic mis- sile defense systems in eastern europe in return for russian cooperation on iran.22 is might be expanded to an explicit deal in which the speed of emplacement and ultimate extent of american missile defenses were directly related to the ra- pidity of iran’s nuclear development and whether tehran ultimately agreed to suspend or end it. is would then put the onus on the russians to nd ways to convince the iranians to stop their program (which likely would mean joining in on tough international sanctions) if the former wanted to head o the deployment of the ameri- can missile defense systems. especially a er the august 2008 russian moves in Georgia, it would be repugnant for the United states simply to ac- quiesce to the reassertion of russian dominance over the former countries of the soviet Union, but it may be necessary to cut some deals in order to secure Moscow’s support for a tougher iran poli- cy. if the current administration truly cares about preventing iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and is determined to pursue the Persua- sion approach to the greatest extent possible, it may nd it necessary to make such hard decisions.
similarly, the chinese have privately indicated that their greatest concern is secure energy sup- plies and that they, too, would be willing to go along with harsher sanctions on a recalcitrant iran if the United states were willing to nd ways
21 ere is some evidence to suggest that the obama administration is doing exactly that. see White house, “Videotaped remarks by the President in celebration of Nowruz.”
22 steven Pifer, “reversing the Decline: an agenda for U.s.-russian relations in 2009,” Policy Paper no. 10, Brookings institution, January 2009.
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
to help china with its energy needs. setting up a joint energy committee for chinese and ameri- can o cials to begin a dialogue, as Je rey Bader has suggested, would be a good place to start. an- other option could entail determined e orts by the United states to reduce its own energy depen- dence (thereby freeing up oil supplies for chinese purchasers) and encouraging oil-producing allies (such as saudi arabia, Kuwait, the United arab emirates, Mexico, and canada) to work more closely with the chinese to reassure them that their energy needs will be met.
other countries also will want payo s from the United states in return for their assistance on iran. such deals may be distasteful, but many will be unavoidable if the Persuasion approach is to have a reasonable chance of succeeding. Without support from a wide range of other countries, sanctions on iran will prove toothless. it is not that these nations do not recognize a danger in a nuclear-armed iran; they just do not regard it as a high priority. as a result, the United states may have to o er them some bene t on one of their higher priorities to secure their cooperation on iran, assuming that the current administration considers it one of america’s highest priorities.
Pros and Cons
e following are the advantages and disadvantag- es of the Persuasion approach.
ere is evidence that a strategy of employ- ing both positive and negative incentives has had an impact on iranian politics, and in the manner—though not the extent— hoped for. roughout the 2003-2007 time frame, iranian elites debated about their nuclear program, with a number suggesting that iran ought to be willing to make compromises to avoid international
sanctions that they feared would cripple their already fragile economy. Given that the Bush administration was never willing to o er the kind of positive inducements that might have made iranians take notice or might have convinced europeans, rus- sians, chinese, and others to go along with the kind of harsh sanctions that might have made iranians wince, the level of debate during this period was surprising. it sug- gests that a more enthusiastic embrace of this option could produce a much more intense debate in tehran that could result in a decision to accept a deal. e success of similar approaches with Libya and (to a lesser extent) North Korea also bolsters this supposition.
is is precisely the course that most U.s. allies would like to see Washington pursue toward iran. is makes it most likely that Washington would secure international co- operation for this option (which, as men- tioned above, is a requirement) and could translate into leverage with those allies. in other words, foreign countries may be willing to accommodate the United states to convince Washington to follow this course—especially if they believe that the new administration is seriously considering regime change, the military option, or the israeli military option (these are discussed in subsequent chapters) as alternatives.
although in an era of domestic economic distress every penny counts, the costs of the likely economic incentives to tehran would be minor—and could well be o set if U.s.- iranian trade blossoms anew in the wake of such a deal.
For those looking to avoid a military con- frontation with tehran, a Persuasion ap- proach would be unlikely to produce such
a con ict. it would be self-defeating for tehran to lash out militarily in response to sharper international sanctions, and they have never done so in the past.
For those who favor regime change or a military attack on iran (either by the United states or israel), there is a strong argument to be made for trying this option rst. incit- ing regime change in iran would be greatly assisted by convincing the iranian people that their government is so ideologically blinkered that it refuses to do what is best for the people and instead clings to a policy that could only bring ruin on the country. e ideal scenario in this case would be that the United states and the international community present a package of positive inducements so enticing that the iranian citizenry would support the deal, only to have the regime reject it. in a similar vein, any military operation against iran will like- ly be very unpopular around the world and require the proper international context— both to ensure the logistical support the op- eration would require and to minimize the blowback from it. e best way to minimize international opprobrium and maximize support (however, grudging or covert) is to strike only when there is a widespread conviction that the iranians were given but then rejected a superb o er—one so good that only a regime determined to acquire nuclear weapons and acquire them for the wrong reasons would turn it down. Under those circumstances, the United states (or israel) could portray its operations as taken in sorrow, not anger, and at least some in the international community would con- clude that the iranians “brought it on them- selves” by refusing a very good deal.
For similar reasons, the Persuasion ap- proach nicely sets up containment as a fall-
back strategy. if the United states and the international community o er the iranian leadership a deal so good that they should not refuse it, but still do, they will convince much of the world that they are bound and determined to acquire nuclear weapons— and probably for nefarious purposes. More to the point, the kinds of harsh sanctions that would hopefully be on the table as part of this strategy would come into force if teh- ran rejected the o er. e key is that these penalties would constitute a far more pow- erful set of constraints than iran has faced in the past. in this way, containment is one of two natural outcomes of the Persuasion ap- proach: if tehran accepts the deal, the threat from iran is eliminated; but if it refuses the deal, the sanctions are imposed, creating a strong containment option.
to be successful, a Persuasion approach would invariably require unpleasant com- promises with third-party countries to secure their cooperation against iran. in many cases, the United states would likely have to choose among very unpalatable op- tions and decide whether securing interna- tional support on iran is worth betraying some other national principle or interest.
e iranians are unlikely to give a simple “yes” or “no” answer when the deal is - nally presented. as in the past, their most likely answer will be “yes, but. . . .” at least initially, they will attempt to see if they can wriggle out of the ultimatum, split the in- ternational coalition, or simply improve the terms and weaken the sanctions. if this is just part of a process to improve an of- fer that the regime has fundamentally de- cided to accept, it would be annoying but not harmful. on the other hand, the regime
The Saban Center at The Brookings Institution 39
may very well decide to reject the o er but feign acceptance while insisting on negoti- ating the details, and use such a process to buy time. is is why the time limits and the automaticity of the sanctions are so important; if they are not part of the deal, then the iranians could reasonably expect to escape the punishments (and the wider emplacement of a containment regime against them) altogether.
although starting with a Persuasion ap- proach can create some advantages for both the regime change and military op- tions, the potential for iran to prolong negotiations could also ultimately under- mine these two options. in particular, the longer that the United states or israel waits to strike iran’s nuclear facilities, the more likely it will be that iran will have improved its defenses, potentially diminishing the impact of the strikes. similarly, protracted haggling over the terms of a deal (at which the iranians excel) will muddy the clarity of the international o er, making it easier for the regime to claim that the deal fell apart over technicalities—which will ob- scure why the regime turned down the deal and weaken domestic incentives for regime change, as well as international resolve to impose sanctions.
although there is no theoretical reason why the United states could not adopt the Per- suasion option and still support democracy and human rights in iran, the reality may be otherwise. in particular, tehran may de- mand an end to such U.s. practices as part of the nal deal, and if iran truly were willing to give up its nuclear program, support for violent extremist groups, and other e orts to reorder the Middle eastern status quo, it would be hard for the United states to re- ject this condition. Nevertheless, such an
abdication could be odious to many amer- icans and iranians alike. indeed, the policy is predicated on the assumption that what the iranian people want most is a healthy economy, and if they are promised that, they will give up almost anything else— and if they are threatened with the ruin of their economy, they will do anything to prevent it. however, if it turns out that po- litical freedom, not economic prosperity, is the iranian people’s highest desire, then the United states not only might be sell- ing them out but also might discover that a core assumption of this option is wrong.
some iran analysts have argued that any policy that includes sanctions is self-de- feating. ey contend that when faced with threats of any kind, the clerical regime con- sistently reacts instinctively with belliger- ence, even when doing so is ultimately det- rimental to its own interests. consequently, in their view, whatever potential impact the positive inducements of the Persuasion ap- proach might have would be undercut by the re exive negative reaction to the threat of sanctions. it is this ercely argued but unproven belief that lies at the heart of the engagement approach, which argues for using only carrots, not sticks.
ere are reasons to believe that this policy will simply fail because of the intricacies and dysfunctions of iranian domestic poli- tics. even if the positive and negative pres- sures work as intended (and as the debates from 2005-2007 suggest, they can), exter- nal in uences are never more than one fac- tor in iranian decisionmaking. since the revolution, the iranian regime has acted in ways that have seemed bizarre and baf- ing to outsiders because they appeared to run contrary to iran’s national interests. in virtually every case, it has been because
40 WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
the iranian leadership has understood its interests di erently from the way in which outsiders have and/or because of domestic political considerations and endless po- litical maneuvering among the elites. since this policy option ultimately relies on the iranian decisionmaking process to make a di cult choice based on external strategic logic, and since the iranian system has just as o en made decisions on alternative con- siderations that run contrary to such logic, one should not assume that this policy is bound to succeed.
The Saban Center at The Brookings Institution 41
the engagement option*
as the previous chapter noted, the Bush ad- ministration tried a version of the Persua- sion approach toward iran for roughly three years and failed to convince tehran to end its quest for a nuclear weapons capability or cease its other problematic behavior. in response, a number of iran analysts have suggested that the problem was not the Bush administration’s half-hearted and contradictory embrace of the strategy but rather that the policy itself was awed. ese analysts argue that the threat and imposition of sanctions will inevitably prompt nationalistic iranians and a fearful regime to reject any diplomatic overture from the West, no matter what the consequences. ey have recommended instead that Washing- ton drop the sticks and instead focus on the car- rots as the only way of creating a set of incentives that the iranian regime might accept.
at the heart of the Bush administration’s oscil- lating initiatives toward iran was a profound uncertainty about the utility of direct engage- ment with tehran in addressing america’s most pressing concerns about iran’s nuclear ambitions,
its support for terrorism, its quest for regional dominance, and its treatment of its own citizens. is uncertainty over engagement transcended the narrow con nes of a typical policy debate and emerged as a central issue of contention between the two presidential candidates in 2008.
During the election campaign, then-candidate obama famously announced his willingness to engage with iran, and he has renewed this pledge since taking o ce. But what remains unclear, and what many partisans and experts on both sides continue to debate, is whether engagement should be merely one element of a larger approach or the central (perhaps only) aspect of the new U.s. pol- icy. e purpose of this chapter is therefore to ex- amine the engagement option—as a stand-alone initiative—as a prospective policy option for the current administration.
at one level, the goals of a policy of pure engage- ment are identical to those of the Persuasion
WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy Toward Iran
* As we noted in the introduction, some have referred to the obama administration’s current iran policy as one of “engagement,” but this is a misnomer. e obama administration’s policy di ers in a number of important ways from a policy of engagement as it has been described and promoted for nearly a decade. Most important, the administration is already employing a variety of threats against iran to try to convince tehran to give up its problematic behavior, and its o er to negotiate directly with the regime is thus limited in time. Both of these elements run directly contrary to the core elements of a policy of pure “engagement” with iran. instead, the obama administration is pursuing what we have called in this volume a policy of “Persuasion,” one that is also o en referred to as a policy of “carrots and sticks” (including by the president himself).
option. engagement seeks to convince the iranian regime to give up a range of behaviors that the United states nds threatening. it proposes to do so by o ering tehran a range of diplomatic, stra- tegic, and economic inducements so attractive that the iranians will gladly give up their prob- lematic policies to secure these bene ts.
however, a critical di erence between engage- ment and Persuasion is that engagement makes no e ort to convince iran to change its behavior soon. instead, it is a process le open to the irani- an regime and, as the next section explains, there is every likelihood that it would take years for the regime to change its ways as a result of this strat- egy, if it does so at all. consequently, a critical ele- ment of the engagement approach is the implicit assumption that there is nothing that the United states or the international community can do to prevent iran from pursuing its nuclear program to whatever end tehran has in mind. similarly, engagement has no mechanism by which to try to prevent iran from supporting violent extrem- ist groups, subverting arab-israeli peace e orts, or generally destabilizing the region. although in theory the option endeavors to convince the re- gime to do so, in practical terms the policy con- sciously surrenders any potential leverage on iran to make it do so. it is ultimately a strategy aimed only at long-term change, although its advocates would argue that such change is both the only realistic change and the most profound change imaginable.
indeed, at rst blush, it would seem that the en- gagement approach has no ambitions to change the iranian regime, and this is certainly true in the short term. e hope of engagement is that once this regime no longer feels threatened by the United states or the international community in any way, it will come to believe that improved re- lations would enhance its own power and stabil- ity, and so will choose to change its ways. indeed, with this approach, success would have to be
de ned in a way that falls short of achieving any maximalist conception of Washington’s ideal aims. even the best-case outcome of engagement—a grand bargain achieved in a relatively short time frame—would likely leave unaddressed disturb- ing iranian policies, such as tehran’s treatment of the most vulnerable of its citizenry, at least in the short term. such an optimal end state of engage- ment would entail an american-iranian relation- ship marked by skeptical ties, cooperation within narrow constraints on areas of common interest, and over the long term, the slow expansion of in- teraction and mutual trust. however, american engagement with iran, even if successful, will not preclude competition or even tensions. in analo- gous cases—iran’s uneasy détentes with the Unit- ed Kingdom and saudi arabia, or america’s re- lationships with china or Libya—rapprochement has not remedied all di culties.
Nevertheless, while engagement is routinely crit- icized as overly accommodating of the internal inadequacies of the iranian regime, proponents suggest that its long-term payo could exceed its more ambitious alternatives. although engage- ment is not directly predicated upon a change in the complexion of iran’s regime, its advocates argue that the process itself would provide the most direct and secure path toward altering the political and ideological character of the regime itself. ey argue that increasing the level and frequency of interaction between iranians and the broader world would erode the regime’s legit- imacy, create new sources and centers of power and in uence, shatter the monopolistic controls of crony elites, and generally usher in more con- ducive conditions for a democratic transition in iran. Moreover, many of engagement’s advo- cates contend that the only way profound po- litical change can come to iran is if the United states backs o , removing the bugbear that the regime uses to justify its repressive controls. in this space, they contend, indigenous democracy activists would ourish, and the result would be
The Saban Center at The Brookings Institution 43
WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
the gradual ascent of a coalition of democratic forces that they see as already emerging from the wreckage of the reformist movement.
e prospects of these assertions coming to frui- tion are di cult to assess. Normalization and the dramatic expansion of economic ties have cer- tainly transformed china by creating a massive middle class, empowering new interest groups outside the parameters of the communist Party, and corroding the in uence of o cial ideology. still, economic liberalization has yet to make a substantial dent in the authoritarian control of the chinese state or its human rights policies. in other situations—particularly the more personal- istic autocracy of Muammar Qadha ’s Libya—the prospect that rapprochement with Washington may stimulate meaningful internal progress is highly unlikely. Nonetheless, proponents of en- gagement with iran point to its well-developed civil society and its considerable experience with competitive politics—albeit currently only within the narrow constraints permitted by the regime— as indicators that iran’s contested domestic po- litical scene would be well-positioned to bene t from the openings provided by engagement.
engagement can only work over the long term. First, simply alleviating tehran’s fears about the United states would take many years. is is espe- cially so since american forces will remain in iraq until at least the beginning of 2012, their presence in afghanistan is open ended, and they will likely remain in the Persian Gulf for decades. Because of this, iran will face powerful U.s. military units on its western, southern, and eastern border for a long time, and this will be threatening no matter how paci c american rhetoric is or how quickly Washington can dismantle the vast web of uni- lateral sanctions against iran that have been built up in countless acts of legislation and executive orders. indeed, the process of dismantling the
sanctions—assuming congress would agree to it—would be an equally long process. e debate over whether the United states is genuine in these changes would be only one element in what will doubtless be a protracted and intense political ght in tehran over whether to engage Washing- ton under even those circumstances. enmity with the United states was a core element of Khomei- ni’s philosophy. Many iranian leaders believe in it fervently and others see it as inherently part of the regime’s legitimacy. Both groups will be loath to abandon it in favor of rapprochement.
Moreover, even security assurances and the dis- mantling of sanctions would not spell success for a policy of pure engagement. First, under these circumstances, iran’s hard-liners would doubtless argue that because iran faces no pun- ishment for continuing with its current policy, there is no reason to change course. is is one area where the analogy with china breaks down: when Washington began its rapprochement with Beijing, china was not actively pursuing poli- cies inimical to american interests, let alone de- signed to harm the United states. For the most part, china had itself shi ed gears and (in tacit cooperation with the United states) was actively opposing the soviet Union and conducting other initiatives bene cial to the United states. at least initially—and that initial period might last years or even decades—iran would push forward on its nuclear program; would continue to back hizbal- lah, hamas, the Palestinian islamic Jihad, the tal- iban, and other violent extremist groups; would continue to oppose an arab-israeli peace as be- ing inimical to its own interests; and would likely continue to support policies designed to destabi- lize the Middle east. indeed, it may well increase all of these activities.
consequently, engagement has a low likelihood of eliminating problematic iranian behavior in the short term. Proponents of engagement must ultimately accept that by pursuing this option, the
United states may be acquiescing to several years or more of further iranian nuclear development, possibly including the development of an actual arsenal, as well as other actions that run counter to U.s. interests.
e contention of those who favor engagement is that sticking to this approach will, over time, moderate iran’s behavior and then lead to the gradual evolution of its political system in a more positive direction. ere is no time limit on this and no way to speed things up (indeed, doing so would be counterproductive as it would mean putting pressure on tehran), and for these rea- sons, it is impossible to know how long it would take to produce “success.” of course, those who advocate pure engagement also contend that all of the other options would fail to secure results in a meaningful time frame, too, and that only engagement would deliver results at all, even if it takes years or decades to do so.
overview of the Policy
engagement as de ned loosely—the simple act of talking to tehran—represents an almost inevi- table component of any broad strategic approach to dealing with the challenges posed by the islamic republic. Diplomacy is by de nition the normal conduct of business between sovereign states, and even in the absence of formal relations between governments, the need to communicate directly persists. roughout their 30-year estrangement, Washington and tehran have communicated rou- tinely on a range of urgent and mundane questions, largely but not entirely through the intermediation of the swiss, who represent U.s. interests in tehran.
Moreover, the manifest utility of dialogue has persuaded every U.s. president—with the ex- ception of a three-year hiatus by the Bush 43 administration between 2003 and 2006—to deal directly with the iranian government. President Jimmy carter pursued negotiations through a
variety of direct and indirect channels throughout the long siege of the hostage crisis, even maintain- ing formal relations—including allowing iran to maintain its embassy in Washington—for a full ve months during the ordeal. roughout the 1980s, america’s readiness to deal directly with tehran persisted, even in the face of escalating regional tensions and U.s.-iranian naval skir- mishes in the Gulf. is receptivity helped inspire the reagan administration’s covert arms sales to the struggling islamic republic, in addition to the obvious short-term interest in enlisting iranian assistance on behalf of Western hostages held in Lebanon. even in the disastrous a ermath of the “iran-contra” a air, secretary of state George shultz explicitly kept the door open to dialogue, with U.s. o cials continuing to meet with ira- nian interlocutors, repeatedly requesting meet- ings with various iranian leaders, and responding positively to back-channel queries from tehran.
President George h.W. Bush continued this pat- tern of signaling american willingness to engage, most notably through his inaugural address asser- tion that “goodwill begets goodwill.” iran’s initial response was disappointing, but su cient posi- tive signs emanated from tehran, including an august 1989 overture by President rafsanjani, for the Bush 41 administration to persist in pressing for iranian assistance in freeing Western hostages held in Lebanon, albeit indirectly through the United Nations. Bush publicly appealed to tehran for better relations, and in February 1991, sec- retary of state James Baker oated the notion of some positive role for iran in a post–Persian Gulf war security framework.
e clinton administration entered o ce de- termined to avoid the disastrous iranian entan- glements of its predecessors, but prompted by iran’s unexpected 1997 election of a moderate president, resumed and intensi ed its predeces- sors’ e orts to reach out to tehran. ese e orts included authorizing the sale of airplane spare
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
parts; relaxing sanctions on food, medicine, and iran’s most important non-oil exports; a proposal to open a consular station in iran; back-channel invitations to iranian reformers to develop a mo- dus vivendi on terrorism; and several remarkable speeches by senior U.s. o cials designed to as- suage iran’s historical grievances and open a new era of interaction.
Finally and most recently, the George W. Bush administration—before embracing regime change and shunning tehran rather than “legitimize” its undemocratic leadership—launched the only sustained, o cially sanctioned dialogue since the negotiations that led to the 1981 hostage re- lease. Before and during the american invasion of afghanistan, american o cials regularly met with iranian representatives for help against their common foes, the taliban and al-Qa’ida. iranian assistance with intelligence, over ights, and logis- tics proved invaluable to the U.s. war e ort. Later, a er a three-year hiatus, the administration pub- licly recommitted itself to engagement through the May 2006 o er, extended jointly with ameri- ca’s european allies, russia and china, for direct talks with tehran on the nuclear issue.23 although iran refused to meet the primary condition of the o er by suspending uranium enrichment, the United states repeatedly reissued the invita- tion over the course of two years. us, even for a president who had denounced talks with radicals as appeasement, engagement with tehran proved an unavoidable component of his strategy.
is history forms an important context for President obama’s determination to try to re- open a formal dialogue with tehran. ere seems to be little doubt that the new president wants to give iran every chance to resolve its stando with the international community cooperatively.
Moreover—and paradoxically—it is hard to en- vision any more muscular approach to iran that does not include a serious attempt at undertaking talks with tehran. it seems unlikely that any U.s. administration would implement military action or a concerted program of regime change, for ex- ample, without rst testing the waters of dialogue, if only to establish the bona des of its actions and shore up the support of a skeptical public and hesitant international community.
Moreover, as noted in the previous chapter, en- gagement would likely be an important element of a Persuasion approach that sought to use both positive and negative incentives to convince iran to give up its destabilizing activities in the near term. however, in the case of that option, en- gagement would begin simply as a tactic that the United states would use to gather information about iran, determine its needs, signal subtle threats, and conduct negotiations to re ne one or more o ers to iran. is tactical dialogue could then grow into strategic engagement with iran, but only if tehran agreed to accept the package of incentives in return for ending its destabilizing behavior. if iran refused, this option would likely evolve in a di erent direction—adopting aspects of regime change, possible military options, or shi ing to a tighter containment of iran than was possible in the past.
The Basic Framework
e engagement option imagines two di er- ent paths to a better relationship with iran. e rst is the o er of a range of positive incentives for iran largely identical to those encompassed in the Persuasion option, in return for which tehran would desist from its nuclear program, support for violent extremist groups, and general e orts
23 For the text of the proposal, see France Diplomatie, “elements of a revised Proposal to iran Made by the e3+3,” available at <http://www. diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country- les_156/iran_301/the-iranian-nuclear-question_2724/elements-of-revised-proposal-to-iran_5314.html>, downloaded March 23, 2009.
to overturn the regional status quo. is is the en- gagement approach’s method for trying to address iran’s problematic behavior in the near term. however, as noted above, the reality is that remov- ing all threats against tehran—let alone li ing the sanctions on iran—could easily produce the op- posite e ect within the iranian political debate over the short term, as regime hard-liners would take it as a sign that their policy of confrontation had been right all along, and iranian pragmatists would likely have di culty making the case that iran would need to give up this policy to secure further bene ts from the West. in practice, it would be hard to convince the regime that these moves were not a sign of american concession, at least for some time, during which iran would likely continue its problematic behaviors.
over the long term, the engagement option en- visions a process by which consistent american reassurance to tehran, discontinuation of threat- ening american activities, and repeated o ers of goodwill would change the iranian perception of the United states. it assumes that iranian behavior toward the United states is driven principally by a perception of threat from the United states and reactions to american moves perceived as hostile in tehran. consequently, over time, a series of con dence-building measures, including the deal envisioned in the preceding paragraph, would break down the barriers of this security dilemma and prompt tehran to curb and eventually end its own hostile policies toward the United states.
Finally, as part of the long-term aspect of this policy option, the engagement approach also argues that the only hope of fostering meaning- ful internal political change in iran is for the United states and the international community to end their hostile behavior toward iran, and to reduce the clerical regime’s paranoia and under- mine the basis for its repression of the iranian people. advocates of engagement argue that only in these circumstances will a genuine democratic
opposition to the current regime be able to grow and secure the support of an iranian populace longing for change.
Putting engagement First
employing engagement with iran as the center- piece of U.s. policy would entail a wholesale shi from all prior U.s. approaches, which have chie y relied on military, economic, and diplomatic co- ercion—coupled at times with parallel e orts at enticement—to induce tehran to abandon its troublemaking ways. a serious U.s. policy of pure engagement, however, would focus primarily, if not exclusively, on incentives as a means of alter- ing iranian political dynamics, policy options, and strategic choices. Direct dialogue with teh- ran would be the sine qua non of an american e ort to engage iran; however, the talks in and of themselves would represent a means rather than an end. e ultimate goal of engagement would be the establishment of an enabling environment and diplomatic framework to support coopera- tion between Washington and tehran on issues of common concern and to further integrate iran into a rules-based global order.
e premise of such an approach is that iran’s most dangerous policies re ect an interests-based response to the threats its leadership perceives and the capabilities at its disposal, rather than an inexorable expression of the revolutionary and/ or islamic ideology that is such a distinctive ele- ment of the regime’s rhetoric. as such, the policy assumes that iran’s support of terrorist groups and actions, its obstinate attachment to a massive and originally secret nuclear infrastructure, and its e orts to assert its sway across the Middle east are all policies that are subject to revision and ad- aptation in response to changing circumstances. e objective of engagement is to change those circumstances in a positive fashion, restraining tehran not by threat, use of force, or nancial compulsion but by persuading iranian leaders
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that their interests are better served by coopera- tion than by confrontation.
advocates of engagement argue that a whole- hearted U.s. embrace of this policy would alter tehran’s preferences in three primary ways. First, by expanding iran’s diplomatic horizons, engage- ment would help mitigate the regime’s perpetual insecurities and provide more acceptable mecha- nisms for iran to assume its historic self-image as a great power. e diminution of the long-stand- ing antagonism with Washington would empow- er iranian moderates and create new avenues of in uence that would provide even its hard-liners with a stake in maintaining constructive relations with the international community. second, the economic incentives of expanded trade and in- vestment with the international community, and speci cally with america, would raise the cost for noncompliance and create internal constituencies for continued moderation. Faced with the pros- pect of losing material opportunities that would o er direct bene t to the iranian people—and perhaps more important, to the in uential po- litical elites themselves—tehran would constrain its own behavior. Finally, engagement would en- tail increasing interaction with the world, which would have an inevitably liberalizing e ect on society and, more speci cally, the regime’s leader- ship and its politically relevant base of support.
For advocates of engagement, the foremost mod- el is that of the american opening to china. For Washington, the decision to normalize relations with china represented a recognition of the limi- tations of american power in the a ermath of a disastrous war and an acknowledgment of the ascendance of new centers of gravity within the international system. For their part, the chinese had come to a parallel epiphany about their stra- tegic vulnerability in a world of enemies and the potential utility of a breakthrough with Wash- ington. Neither side capitulated, but the strate- gic bargain that was concluded transformed the
parameters of the relationship from open hostility to managed competition and episodic collabora- tion. Pursuing engagement with iran would re- quire each side to accept just such a clear-headed appreciation of both the legitimate grievances and security interests of its adversary as well as a vi- sion of the value and viability of an enduring stra- tegic bargain between them.
Two Paths to engagement
engagement can be considered in two general for- mats: an incremental/compartmentalized route or the “grand bargain” approach. either approach would seek as its ultimate objective a compre- hensive framework to address all the issues out- standing between Washington and tehran and generate a framework for eventual normalization of relations, because only a multifaceted process that tackles the broad host of issues at stake be- tween the two governments could generate both the versatility and credibility to make real prog- ress on the hardest issues.
e two options would di er primarily in their operational dimensions. an incremental or com- partmentalized approach would undertake sepa- rate negotiating tracks organized around speci c issue areas such as nuclear matters, iran’s role in the Levant, Persian Gulf security, and the nancial and legal claims that iran and the United states hold against each other. e tracks would be dis- tinct and noncontingent, in the sense that logjams in one arena would not preclude progress in an- other. Most advocates of engagement highlight the centrality of the bilateral conversation between Washington and tehran. however, the protracted immersion of the permanent members of the UN security council as well as Germany into this con- ict all but ensures that the multilateral compo- nent of the nuclear diplomacy will be retained un- der any new framework for engagement. in such a compartmentalized approach to engagement, it would be possible for Washington and tehran
to achieve bilateral consensus on a single area of concern while continuing to wrangle over more problematic items of the overall agenda.
conversely, a grand bargain approach would endeavor to engage the wide range of issues in- volving iran as a package, addressing each of the american concerns and iranian grievances simul- taneously with the objective of fashioning a com- prehensive accord. Proponents of the grand bar- gain contend that a durable deal is best fashioned by tackling the totality of american di erences with tehran rather than in a piecemeal or gradu- alist manner. Many o en cite as an added bene t the boost that any such comprehensive o er might provide to america’s standing in the world and its e orts to generate su cient diplomatic coopera- tion from key allies. e precise contours of the grand bargain would, of course, be determined by the parties through negotiations, but various descriptions of the potential trade-o s and com- mitments suggest that such a deal could comprise the provision of american security guarantees to tehran along with a process to dismantle U.s. eco- nomic and diplomatic sanctions in exchange for iranian steps to disavow hizballah, hamas, and other terrorist proxies and undertake measures to provide full transparency and con dence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear activities.
advocates of each of the two options hold opposing views on the viability of the alternative. ose who prefer an incremental approach suggest that a grand bargain is simply unrealistic given the duration and acrimony of the estrangement and the sensitivity of the issues at stake for both sides. incrementalists contend that early, speci c progress in narrowly de- ned areas of common interest is an essential com- ponent to sustaining the process of engagement it- self, and that only by achieving tangible bene ts can engagement create the level of mutual con dence and political leverage from reluctant constituencies on both sides to facilitate concessions on more con- tentious issues or sustain any broader agreement.
ose who favor a holistic grand bargain ap- proach deride incrementalism as prone to col- lapse and/or reversal under the weight of pre- dictably episodic stumbling blocks. ey point to the inability of either the United states or iran to move beyond issue-speci c cooperation in those instances where such interaction has been initiat- ed, including the 2001-2003 talks on afghanistan, arguing that only a fully inclusive approach will generate the momentum necessary to advance an undertaking of this magnitude to its fruition. For its supporters, only a grand bargain o ers the req- uisite assurances for each side to make the epic concessions that its adversary demands.
e crux of the di erence between these compet- ing approaches to engagement involves their un- derstanding and interpretation of iran’s internal politics. ose who advocate an issue-speci c, compartmentalized strategy of engagement sug- gest that incrementalism is critical to building con dence and political support among iranian hard-liners, whose ideological a nities and elite self-interest have long cemented their opposi- tion to any normalization with america. sup- porters of a grand bargain approach point to a 2003 trial balloon oated by in uential iranian reformists with reported support from the coun- try’s supreme leader as evidence that the islamic republic can in fact transcend its internal rival- ries and ideological impediments when the state’s interests so demand. since the Bush administra- tion failed to pursue the 2003 proposal, in part because of questions about its credibility, the is- sue of iran’s political will to resolve its antipathy with Washington remains largely untested and ultimately unknown.
e engagement option’s method of trying to con- vince the iranian regime to cease its problematic behavior in the near or medium term relies on of- fering iran only positive incentives, without the
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negative incentives of Persuasion. in this sense, engagement as a policy option is also predicated upon the e cacy of incentives to alter the prefer- ences, priorities, and policies of the iranian lead- ership. While the speci c scope of any incentives would ultimately be determined by the american administration, most proposals suggest three broad areas that should be addressed: nuclear, strategic, and economic. Five years of frustrat- ing and mostly fruitless negotiations between the international community and iran have tended to prioritize the rst, on the premise that the re- gime’s staunchly nationalist defense of its “right” to nuclear technology limits its exibility in ac- ceding to the self-imposed limitations desired by the international community. having invested its national prestige in the advancement and expan- sion of its nuclear expertise and infrastructure, the iranian regime will only be willing to curtail its ambitions in exchange for carrots speci cally tailored to satisfy its ostensible need for technical prowess and alternative power sources. to date, the o ers of Western investment in light-water reactors and fuel guarantees have proven insu - cient to tempt a political elite that is increasingly aligned around the utility of obstinacy on the nuclear issue, but it is reasonable to envision that the right package could produce a more amenable response.
e political and economic components of any potential incentives package are similarly essen- tial to the prospect of the iranian regime con- templating meaningful concessions of its own. roughout most of the last three decades, the primary obstacle to generating any diplomatic traction between Washington and tehran has been tehran’s insistence on speci c U.s. policy changes as a prerequisite for engaging in any dialogue. e particular preconditions typically
sought by tehran have included a range of eco- nomic as well as political concessions on the part of Washington, such as the release of iran’s re- maining assets frozen by the United states, the li ing of american sanctions, and the removal of U.s. forces from the Persian Gulf. Ultimately, however, the importance of these preconditions for tehran appears to be as much symbolic as practical. iranian o cials have asserted explic- itly and repeatedly that U.s. con dence-building measures are necessary to demonstrate ameri- can respect for iran’s revolution and its leader- ship. tehran demands “practical steps” from Washington in order to “establish its sincerity and good faith.”24 american supplication has been needed to assuage iran’s persistently of- fended sensibilities. as an in uential conserva- tive journalist once questioned, “how can [su- preme leader] ayatollah [‘ali] Khamenei accept relations with america if it shows no sign of re- pentance for its past actions?”25
in order to address iran’s underlying insecurity, many advocates of engagement have called for speci c U.s. commitments to refrain from e orts to remove the iranian regime as well as provide security guarantees similar to those envisioned in the Persuasion approach. to some extent, such pledges would appear to replicate the language of nonintervention that can be found in vari- ous international accords, including the tripar- tite agreement that ended the hostage crisis. e 1981 algiers accords pledges “that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United states not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in iran’s internal a airs.” interestingly, there is no evidence that a new U.s. pledge to re- spect iran’s sovereignty and refrain from threats or aggression would have particular resonance with tehran. Demands for a security guarantee
24 David Menashri, Post-Revolutionary Politics in Iran (London: Frank cass Publishers, 2001), p. 192. 25 “‘islamic New inker’ sees Formula for iran-U.s. ties,” reuters, May 29, 2001.
have never been part of the litany of conditions articulated by iranian leaders—in fact, many have explicitly rejected this idea—and given their profound mistrust in U.s. leaders and motives, it is not clear why tehran’s persistent insecurities would be assuaged in any meaningful way by a new set of U.s. written commitments.
instead, as with the Persuasion approach, security guarantees to tehran would likely have to go well beyond toothless rhetoric. again, such steps could include american e orts to initiate a dialogue on small-bore issues such as resumption of talks on naval protocols for incident-at-sea prevention or a U.s. proposal for a regional security framework that integrates the islamic republic more fully within the region. here as well, it would be of equal or greater importance to tehran that as part of any security guarantees, Washington pledge to curtail or end its high-pro le e orts to promote democracy within iran. ese activities under- mine U.s. e orts to draw iran to the negotiating table by suggesting that the principal american objective is the eradication of the islamic repub- lic and its leadership. ese tangible measures, buttressed by unequivocal statements by senior american o cials about the nature of U.s. aims and intentions toward iran, could produce greater traction among iranian decisionmakers.
a nal and critical dimension of any engage- ment approach involves economic inducements. ese are envisioned as a more e ective alterna- tive to sanctions, which for over 28 years have failed to produce signi cant positive changes to iran’s most problematic policies. of course, there is clear evidence that iranian leaders are sensitive to economic pressure and, at various points, have adjusted their policies on the basis of costs, con- straints, and opportunities. e best example of this can be seen in the e orts to promote regional détente during the late 1990s, which re ected, at least in part, reformist president Muhammad Khatami’s concerns about sagging oil revenues
and the urgent need for foreign investment. Nev- ertheless, proponents of the pure engagement ap- proach argue that economic rewards could prove more valuable in enticing iran today, given the profound economic problems—particularly in- ation in consumer goods and real estate costs— that have resulted from President Mahmud ah- madinejad’s disastrous approach to economic management. o ers that tap into the frustration of politically salient constituencies—bazaar mer- chants, for example, as well as the considerable class of privileged elites who have successfully parlayed political access into material wealth un- der the islamic republic—could create powerful internal advocates for policy changes within iran.
Time and Timing
however e ective economic incentives might prove, any U.s. administration seeking to imple- ment the engagement strategy vis-à-vis iran will face a dilemma over the issues of time and tim- ing. currently, american individuals and enti- ties are forbidden from engaging in nearly all forms of business interaction with tehran, and even the exceptions carved out under the clinton administration that permit food, medicine, and certain other non-oil exports have come under great pressure in recent years. o ering economic concessions in advance of any speci c, tangible policy changes from tehran would prove politi- cally radioactive within the american domestic political debate. Moreover, even a simple e ort to relax or suspend the most recently enacted sanc- tions, many of which have crimped iran’s inter- action with the international nancial system, would require the White house to make a posi- tive assertion that the individuals or institutions have ceased involvement with terrorism and/or proliferation activities. No material economic gestures from Washington can be contemplated until a process of engagement is well under way, and tehran has demonstrated its willingness and capacity to curtail its worst excesses.
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in the absence of some hint of iranian reciproca- tion, the best that any U.s. administration could likely produce is a more temperate attitude to- ward iran’s economic relationships with various international nancial institutions and with U.s. allies, many of whom have curtailed export cred- its and other measures that facilitate trade with iran because of legitimate concerns about the investment climate there as much as in response to U.s. pressure. one potentially powerful tool would be measures such as executory contracts that permit americans to engage in business- related discussions with iranian counterparts but defer any actual exchange of resources or services until further political progress has been achieved.
Moreover, engagement su ers from some of the same problems with time as the Persuasion ap- proach. in particular, it is virtually impossible to know if the policy is working until it has manifest- ly succeeded—and it could well take years or even decades to succeed. Following a policy of pure en- gagement, the United states would make a num- ber of o ers to tehran and, to the extent possible, couple them with the kinds of unilateral gestures described above to try to demonstrate Washing- ton’s good faith. since no one could expect tehran to respond immediately, the policy would have to anticipate a period of waiting during which time tehran would have to make up its mind. Unscru- pulous iranian leaders might well attempt to draw out that period by hinting at a willingness to en- gage the United states even if they had no inten- tion of doing so, merely to buy time to complete their nuclear program and advance other pro- grams and policies inimical to american inter- ests. Without even the threat of harsher economic sanctions embodied in the Persuasion approach, engagement would have a far more di cult time even establishing when the policy had failed and that it was time to shi to another strategy.
an Uncertain Partner
Finally, any balanced assessment of a policy of pure engagement must address the likelihood that iran would respond as hoped. at present, that likelihood seems uncertain at best, and there is considerable evidence to justify real pes- simism. iran’s current internal political dynam- ics present a thorny environment for any e ort at engagement. e conservative retrenchment and the ascendance of ahmadinejad’s brand of radicalism essentially eliminate any near- term prospect of a self-generated liberalization of iran’s internal politics and approach to the world. iranian leaders see their state as besieged from all directions by Washington, a product of both its deeply engrained paranoia as well as ac- tual facts on the ground. at the same time, the leadership—in particular President ahmadine- jad—is buoyed by a sense of con dence, even arrogance, about the country’s domestic and re- gional status.
What this bifurcated view of the world translates to in practice is a tendency to equate assertive- ness as equivalent to, or an e ective substitute for, power—both in internal politics and in for- eign policy. is hobbesian worldview encour- ages adventurism and discourages compromise. Molded by their perception of an inherently hostile world and the conviction that that the exigencies of regime survival justify its actions, iranian leaders seek to exploit every opening, pursue multiple or contradictory agendas, play various capitals against one another, and engage in pressure tactics—including the limited use of force—to advance their interests. as Khamene’i has argued, “rights cannot be achieved by en- treating. if you supplicate, withdraw and show exibility, arrogant powers will make their threat more serious.”26
26 Karim sadjadpour, “reading Khamenei: e World View of iran’s Most Powerful Leader,” report, carnegie endowment for international Peace, March 2008, p. 16, available at <http://www.carnegieendowment.org/ les/sadjadpour_iran_ nal2.pdf>.
as iran’s ultimate authority, Khamene’i frames the parameters of any debate on an issue of this mag- nitude and can wield a veto over any overtures or responses. Gaining his imprimatur for both the process as well as any eventual outcome of en- gagement will be essential but also immensely challenging. Khamene’i has never exhibited any evidence of positive sentiments toward america, and the United states has had no direct contact with either the supreme leader or anyone in his o ce for the past 30 years. Beyond Khamene’i, any overtures toward iran will have to contend with the outsized personality and ambitions of President ahmadinejad. Despite his manifest dif- culties with both iran’s political elites as well as its population, it would be a mistake to presume that the era of ahmadinejad is already on the wane. even if he somehow passes from the scene, there is every reason to believe that the legacy of his ideological fervor and the constituency whose worldview he re ects will continue to shape the options available to any future iranian leader. any e ort to promote engagement must nd a way to co-opt or circumvent ahmadinejad and those of his ideological ilk, most of whom have limited international exposure.
still, it is worth noting that a positive shi in iran’s internal politics—one that swings the pen- dulum back toward the center or even toward a more liberalized domestic order—will not neces- sarily facilitate new cooperation on the interna- tional front. e power struggle that dominated iran during the reformist zenith complicated its decisionmaking, and the exigencies of internal competition constrained even those leaders who might have been amenable to reaching out to Washington. us, a er auspicious initial signals at the outset of Khatami’s rst term, the reform- ers refrained from overtures to the United states simply to avoid provoking hard-line reactions from their rivals. Moreover, shi s in iran’s inter- nal politics may only undermine whatever inter- national consensus remains around a common
position on iran, a factor that could stymie e orts to address the most problematic elements of iran’s foreign policy. ose states desperate to avoid any confrontational policy with iran, regardless of all other considerations, o en pounce on seeming shi s in tehran’s balance of power to justify fur- ther inaction.
Perhaps ironically, the consolidation of the con- servatives has created a potentially and unex- pected new opening for diplomacy with the United states. today, for the rst time in iranian postrevolutionary history, there is cross-factional support for direct, authoritative dialogue with their american adversaries. Public endorsement of negotiations with Washington—a position that risked a prison term if voiced publicly as recently as 2002—is now the o cial position of the en- tire relevant political elite of the islamic repub- lic. e shi can be credited at least in part to ahmadinejad, whose conservative backing and rmly established revolutionary credentials fa- cilitated his surprising and largely ham- sted attempts to reach out to Washington as a means of courting public opinion. ahmadinejad’s over- tures have been reinforced by public statements from Khamene’i over the past two years o ering grudging but unprecedented support for negotia- tions with the United states.
to facilitate a serious dialogue, iran will need something more than just the crucial blessing of Khamene’i and ahmadinejad; given the com- plexities of the iranian system and its endemic factionalism, engagement will require an iranian political gure who is both willing and capable of championing this agenda. For more than 20 years, ali akbar hashemi rafsanjani played that role, advocating consistently for an improved—if not wholly restored—relationship with Washing- ton, both in public remarks as early as 1983 and, more relevantly, behind the scenes as one of the regime’s central power brokers. however, the past decade has demonstrated that he is not well
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suited for iran’s contemporary political environ- ment. rafsanjani cannot command a vast popular mandate, as his embarrassing performances in the 2000 parliamentary and 2005 presidential bal- lots demonstrated. Nor have his wily, backroom tactics proven particularly e ective in neutraliz- ing the bombast or the populism that has elevated ahmadinejad. rafsanjani will continue to have an important role in shaping iran’s policies and its political evolution, but his heyday is well be- hind him, and persistent reports of his imminent resurgence have proven vastly overstated. Who might assume this mantle as rafsanjani fades from the scene? ere are a host of potential can- didates but none who have yet demonstrated the necessary interest, tenacity, or political fortitude.
e scal and military requirements of pursuing engagement are e ectively negligible; if anything, a successful implementation could produce some cost savings for Washington with respect to mili- tary resources as well as expanded U.s. economic opportunities. conversely, the domestic political resources required on both sides to make such an approach viable are imposing. engagement re ects a tacit acceptance of two important ar- guments that are open to debate: rst, that iran’s leadership is capable of changing policies and be- havior that invoke central tenets of the regime’s ideology; and second, that iran and the United states are willing to accommodate each other’s core interests in order to achieve a peaceful co- existence. Proponents can make a strong case for the viability of both propositions, but inevitably the propositions would require an american will- ingness to invest political capital and diplomatic energy in a process that has no guarantee of a positive outcome.
e most important “resource” that would be required on each side is political capital and the capacity of each government to support a
protracted, complicated negotiating process over the course of what would inevitably be a period of great ux, if not turmoil, in the region. Desta- bilizing developments in a related arena—such as iraq, Lebanon, afghanistan, or the arab-israeli peace process—would impinge upon any incipi- ent negotiating process, and both Washington and tehran would require tremendous fortitude and cross-cutting domestic political support to ride out these predictable shocks.
any U.s. administration preparing to undertake a serious strategy employing only positive incen- tives toward the islamic republic would have to be willing and prepared to absorb the vehement backlash from both domestic political constitu- encies as well as regional allies. a president who chose to engage iran—whether as a stand-alone approach or as part of a more variegated e ort— would need to have the solid backing of congress, where grandstanding on issues related to iran has long been a popular and politically advantageous diversion. e president would also need to make a compelling case to the american people about the viability and utility of engagement while cul- tivating realistic expectations about the challenges of negotiating with an adversary as complicated and entrenched as tehran. is could be espe- cially challenging if iran chooses not to respond positively for some period of time, and instead ag- gressively continues to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, provide weapons to iraqi and afghan groups killing american troops, oppose Middle east peace e orts, and engage in other destabilizing activities. engagement would win plaudits from some international constituencies, but the parties to the past ve years of negotiations over iran’s nu- clear program—particularly Britain, France, and Germany—may perceive this approach as under- cutting whatever minimal progress a united multi- lateral campaign of pressure has achieved to date. e United states would also have to manage the disparate interests and concerns of israel and the arab states of the Persian Gulf. Given a policy that
regional states will doubtless see as “surrender- ing” to iran, Washington would have to convince israel not to attack and the Gcc not to get nuclear weapons of their own.
over the course of implementing its policy of en- gagement, Washington would also have to deal with the ongoing challenges of iranian mischief and defending the deal to skeptics. speci cally, the administration would have to consider the concessions the United states is prepared and ca- pable of o ering to tehran and the level of irani- an misconduct Washington is prepared to coun- tenance—and then persuade a largely skeptical political corps that such compromises are worth- while. other cases of iranian détente with former adversaries—in particular, Britain and saudi ara- bia—have hinged on the ability and willingness of iran’s adversaries to accept a considerable degree of ambiguity from tehran and to provide signi - cant scope for face-saving rhetoric and actions.
in any U.s.-iranian engagement process, Wash- ington would have to be prepared to accept a stra- tegic bargain that ultimately falls short of optimal american objectives. While the United states has struck similar bargains with other former adver- saries, such as china, and has found a way to live with the manifold failings of imperfect allies such as Pakistan, iran has special sensitivity within the american political context. even the best im- perfect bargain would be di cult to promote at home and may fall short of meeting american strategic needs in southwest asia. since this op- tion relies on the iranians to want our positive incentives enough to make the compromises we need, without any threat should they refuse, the most that iran might be willing to give up might fall well short of what the United states consid- ers its minimal goals. For instance, it is impos- sible to imagine that iran would give up nuclear enrichment in these circumstances, and unlikely
that they would even agree to the more intrusive inspections of the NPt’s additional protocol. e most the United states might get from the irani- ans on the nuclear front would be a rea rmation of their statement that they are not seeking nu- clear weapons, which would elicit much skepti- cism given the many lies they have already told the iaea and the international community about their nuclear program.
Washington would also need to consider the lo- gistical dimension of any engagement process. anks to the long american absence from teh- ran and bureaucratic neglect, the U.s. diplomatic apparatus for dealing with iran remains insu - cient. to its credit, the Bush administration in- vested in upgrading capabilities by establishing a new set of administrative structures to coordinate all o cial policy and activities with respect to iran. over the long term, the new con guration will create a cadre of american o cials skilled in interpreting iranian issues and capable of sta ng some future diplomatic engagement; in the short term, Washington will be pressed to assemble a team with su cient background and exposure to iran who can sta prolonged negotiations.
Pros and Cons
e following are the advantages and disadvantag- es of the Engagement approach.
ere is evidence that engagement can work. e direct bilateral talks on issues surrounding afghanistan that were pur- sued by the Bush administration between 2001 and 2003 have been described by an o cial U.s. participant as “perhaps the most constructive period of U.s.-iranian diplomacy since the fall of the shah.”27
27 James Dobbins, “how to talk to iran,” Washington Post, July 22, 2007, p. B07.
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over the course of 18 months, the direct communication between Washington and tehran on afghanistan generated tangible cooperation between the two adversaries on a critical issue of american security, in- cluding valuable tactical iranian assistance in operation enduring Freedom, the es- tablishment and stabilization of the post- taliban government in Kabul, and iranian o ers to participate in a U.s.-led training program for the afghan army and to launch a counterterrorism dialogue with Washing- ton.28 e bilateral dialogue was not an easy or perfect pathway for diplomacy, but even where the results did not ful ll U.s. expec- tations, the existence of a direct dialogue provided an indispensable channel on this vital issue for both sides. With the appropri- ate investment of diplomatic resources and energy, this precedent could be extended to the wider array of american concerns.
e costs of the likely economic incentives to tehran would be minor—and would probably be more than o set if U.s.-iranian trade owers as part of a rapprochement.
a serious, well-cra ed e ort by Wash- ington to engage tehran would generate considerable support among european allies and potentially create leverage for alternative policy directions if engagement were to fail. at various points over the past ve years, the self-imposed limitations of the Bush administration on dealing di- rectly with tehran were the subject of con- siderable frustration by its european part- ners, who o en expressed futility at trying to in uence tehran without any capacity
to address the underlying dilemma—the enduring antagonism between the United states and iran.
a serious process of engagement could temper tensions in the Gulf and might mitigate unintended clashes between U.s. forces in the Gulf and iranian agents and proxies in iraq and elsewhere by provid- ing a mechanism for addressing grievances and concerns, and by generating greater transparency, enabling each side to observe its adversary’s preferences and decision- making processes. at present, iranian de- cisionmakers—like many in Washington— are trying to interpret american policy and politics through the glass darkly, which tends to in ame conspiracy theories and re- inforce inaccurate interpretations of intent. For all those iranian political actors, such as ahmadinejad, who have dismissed the possibility of a U.s. military strike on the country, there are others from each end of the political spectrum who have expressed fears that a desperate Washington might at- tack iran to vindicate and/or extricate itself from its failed intervention in iraq. as an associated bene t, a sustained process of dialogue between Washington and tehran would dampen the security premium that the market has factored into the high price of oil, which itself would erode some of iran’s current imperviousness to the impact of economic sanctions.
iran’s internal politics are so complex and convoluted that engagement—which is
28 see in particular two pieces of testimony before the house committee on oversight and Government reform, subcommittee on National security and Foreign a airs, November 7, 2007: James Dobbins, “Negotiating with iran,” available at <http://stinet.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GettrD oc?aD=aDa474062&Location=U2&doc=GettrDoc.pdf>; hillary Mann, “U.s. Diplomacy with iran: e Limits of tactical engagement,” available at <http://nationalsecurity.oversight.house.gov/documents/20071107175322.pdf>.
premised on the notion that iran will recip- rocate kindness for kindness—has no guar- antee of success. indeed, there is also evi- dence that incentives pro ered unilaterally from Washington to tehran will prove in- adequate. e clinton administration un- dertook dramatic steps to create an open- ing with the reformists during the Khatami period—including the relaxation of an ar- ray of sanctions and a fairly wide-ranging apology for past policies—and received no reciprocal positive signals or overtures from tehran, in part, no doubt, because of the enduring power struggle within the iranian regime. While the reconsolidation of power in the hands of iran’s conserva- tive faction could mitigate this problem, the current political context within iran and the region creates a di erent complica- tion. tehran’s hard-liners will interpret any unilateral initiative from Washington—or perception of concessions—as a sign of weakness, which will only bolster the cur- rent consensus among the iranian elite that a more aggressive position will better serve their country’s interests.
tehran may conclude that the end of con- frontational american policies toward iran as envisioned in this option is a sign of weakness on the part of the United states, and a vindication for their own aggressive behavior. Not only might this make iran less willing to accept any deal pro ered by the United states, in the expectation that further iranian aggressiveness might force addition- al american concessions, but it could lead to unintended clashes between the United states and iran (or israel and iran). us the option also runs the risk of provoking the very military con ict it seeks to avoid.
e timetable for any negotiating process exacerbates the inherent discrepancies be-
tween U.s. and iranian interests. even in an optimal situation—a sincere and uni ed iranian commitment to the negotiations— the process itself would be protracted. Prior cases of rapprochement with old ad- versaries involving either the United states or iran have entailed years of discussion, much of it occurring behind the scenes. e anticipated duration for this negotia- tion would necessarily be longer, a prod- uct of the complexity of the issues at stake, the entrenched nature of the antagonism, and the peculiarities of iran’s perpetually fractured internal political dynamics and consensus decisionmaking process. tehran could easily use the process of negotiations and dialogue as an opportunity to maxi- mize its own leverage and dupe the inter- national community, pushing forward un- til its nuclear capabilities have reached the fabled “point of no return.” e end result would be close to the worst-case scenario from the perspective of U.s. interests in en- suring that iran does not possess nuclear weapons capability.
it is very possible that there simply is no constituency within iran that is both will- ing and capable of making a bargain with Washington. in fact, there are undoubtedly important constituencies within the irani- an political elite who would welcome a cri- sis as a means of rekindling iran’s waning revolutionary res and de ecting attention from the domestic de ciencies of islamic rule. e reality is that despite an array of missed opportunities on both sides, tehran has never clearly communicated that its leadership would be prepared, fully and au- thoritatively, to make epic concessions on the key areas of U.s. concern. even more uncertain is whether iran has had or will ever attain the level of policy coordination and institutional coherence that would
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enable any overarching agreement to be implemented successfully.
Unless the United states carefully prepares it allies regarding its adoption of an en- gagement approach, Washington may nd that some of its most important partners in dealing with the challenges posed by iran could prove surprisingly unenthu- siastic about such a dramatic shi in U.s. tactics. e europeans may interpret such a turnaround as subverting their own con- siderable investment in a multilateral dip- lomatic framework for addressing iran’s nuclear ambitions, and prove reluctant to provide crucial international reinforce- ment for american overtures. Within the region, america’s arab allies would likely react as apprehensively to U.s.-iranian en- gagement as they would to the prospect of a military attack. Given their reliance on the american security umbrella and their longstanding trepidations about iranian in uence and intentions, the Persian Gulf states would likely seek to bolster their domestic defenses—and turn to alterna- tive suppliers to do so. ey may follow through on their many private threats to
acquire nuclear weapons of their own if the iranians are allowed to do so. at the very last, their con dence in the credibility of U.s. diplomatic and military commit- ments would su er.
Finally, the israel factor presents a disturb- ing wild card for the prospects of engage- ment. For most of the past three decades, israel and the United states have main- tained broadly similar assessments of the threat posed by iran and correspondingly close cooperation on policy. although the bilateral relationship today remains as strong as ever, a reversal of the traditional american approach to iran would raise profound misgivings among most of the israeli body politic and their supporters in the U.s. congress. if israeli leaders believe that their interests are being ill served by U.s.-iranian negotiations, they may feel compelled to take independent military ac- tion, irrespective of the prospects of success or the cascading impact on american in- terests in the region. such a scenario would torpedo any engagement process and likely create an avalanche of intensi ed security dilemmas for Washington.
58 WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
DisarMiNG tehraN the Military options
the diplomatic options available to the Unit- ed states for addressing the problem of iran share a common, possibly fatal, aw: they re- quire iranian cooperation. even the Persuasion option, which contains important elements of coercion in addition to those elements meant to persuade, ultimately relies on the willingness of the iranian regime to cooperate. Both diplomatic options assume that tehran is capable of making cost-bene t analyses, placing strategic consider- ations ahead of domestic politics and ideology, and making a major shi in what has been one of the foundational policies of the islamic repub- lic—enmity toward the United states. as the pre- vious chapters noted, all of these assumptions are, at best, unproven. at worst, there is considerable evidence calling many of them into question.
is means that neither of the diplomatic options is a sure thing. ey are not doomed to failure, but neither are they guaranteed to succeed. Neither may have a better than even chance of success, and we cannot know with any degree of certainty just what their true probability of success is.
Beyond this concern, many americans simply distrust the iranian regime. ey do not believe that tehran will ever live up to any agreements struck with the United states, no matter what the circumstances or the manifest advantages to tehran. For them, this also calls into question the
advisability of a policy employing both positive and negative incentives (Persuasion) or one rely- ing only on positive incentives (engagement) to- ward tehran.
others extend that mistrust not only to iran but to russia, china, and even our european and Japa- nese allies. ey contend that whatever america’s allies may agree to in theory, they will never be willing in practice to impose the kinds of penal- ties on tehran that might make a diplomatic ap- proach feasible.
For that reason, they reject any option that re- quires iranian cooperation, or even the coop- eration of america’s allies. instead, they place their faith only in options that the United states could implement unilaterally. Unfortunately, af- ter 30 years of devising ever more creative new sanctions against iran, Washington has few uni- lateral economic and diplomatic methods le to pressure tehran. ere are essentially no more economic arrows le in america’s quiver. if the United states is going to act unilaterally against iran, it will likely have to resort to force.
consequently, for these americans, force is the only sensible option to apply toward tehran. in their view, force has the great advantage that it is wholly under american control and can succeed without iranian cooperation and only minimal
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
allied support. Unlike the regime change options (covered in Part iii), the military options rely on the most capable instrument of the U.s. govern- ment—its peerless armed forces—and, again, do not require any iranians (or U.s. allies) to cooper- ate in any way. advocates of this policy option see force as superior to containment because they fear that once iran crosses the nuclear threshold, the islamic republic will prove di cult or even impossible to deter from greater aggression, and possibly even nuclear weapons use.
e election of President ahmadinejad in 2005 and the continued progress of iran’s nuclear pro- gram since then have made the military option more plausible and prominent. at the same time, however, growing military di culties in iraq made the idea of another major american military e ort in the Middle east less credible, and the unilateral- ist and militaristic image of the United states that developed a er the 2003 invasion of iraq further constrained Washington. Yet the possibility of us- ing force has remained part of the conversation, with american o cials convinced that it must re- main at least a last-ditch recourse, if only to focus the minds of iranian leaders. President obama has so far refused to rule out the use of force, even while making clear that it is not the approach to iran he plans to take. Meanwhile, ahmadinejad’s bellicose posturing toward israel has made many worry that even if the United states does not strike iran’s nuclear facilities, israel might do so instead (possibly with american acquiescence).
With this context in mind, Part ii of this mono- graph examines the military options against iran. even those americans who consider it a very bad idea—or at least very premature—must wrestle with the pros and cons of keeping an explicit mili- tary threat as a part of an american policy toolkit in this di cult situation.
Part ii begins by looking at the most extreme military option, that of invading the country to depose the regime, as the United states did in iraq and afghanistan. We chose to consider this extreme and highly unpopular option partly for the sake of analytical rigor and partly because if iran responded to a confrontational american policy—such as an airstrike, harsh new sanctions, or e orts to foment regime change—with a major escalation of terrorist attacks (or more dire moves against israel and other american allies), inva- sion could become a very “live” option. in 1998 there was almost no one who favored an invasion of iraq or believed it likely, but ve years later it was a fait accompli. certainly stranger things have happened, and so we cannot simply ignore this option.
airstrikes against iran’s nuclear facilities are the most frequently discussed military option for the United states and israel, and indeed they are the most likely scenario for the use of force. conse- quently, the second chapter of this section exam- ines this option.
some americans believe that the costs to the United states of taking military action against iran would be too high, or they simply doubt that Washington would ever summon the will to do so, and so they hope that israel will take action instead. regardless of what the U.s. government wants, israel might do so anyway if it believes it has no other alternative. in that scenario, the United states would have to ask itself whether to encourage or discourage Jerusalem from tak- ing that fateful step. according to newspaper ac- counts, the Bush 43 administration blocked just such an israeli attack, and the obama adminis- tration might face a similar decision at a more delicate time in the future.29 consequently, the last chapter in this section considers this decision.
29 David e. sanger, “U.s. rejected aid for israeli raid on iranian Nuclear site,” New York Times, January 10, 2009.
GoiNG aLL the WaY invasion
there is little appetite in the United states for mounting an invasion of iran. a er the frus- trations and costs of the wars in afghanistan and iraq, few americans are looking for another ght in the Middle east. american ground forces are badly overstretched as it is. Under these circum- stances, an invasion of iran would require calling up huge numbers of National Guard and military reserve personnel and keeping them in service for several years. a er the strains of frequent deploy- ments to iraq and afghanistan over the past eight years, this might undermine the foundations of the all-volunteer force.
Nor is it clear that a full-scale invasion is nec- essary. e most compelling rationale for this course of action is the fear that iran’s leadership would prove di cult or impossible to deter once it had acquired a nuclear weapons capability. Doubts remain, but american, european, and even israeli experts have all argued that while iran may not be easy to deter, the available evidence indicates that it probably could be deterred from the most extreme behavior. is in turn calls into question whether the costs of an invasion could be justi ed.30
Despite this, only an invasion o ers the United states nality when it comes to its 30-year con ict with the islamic republic. if the goal is to elimi- nate all the problems the United states has with the current iranian regime, from its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its e orts to overturn the sta- tus quo in the Middle east by stirring instability across the region, there is no other strategy that can assure this objective. of course, as U.s. expe- rience in iraq and afghanistan has demonstrated, that certainty comes with the distinct possibility of creating new risks, threats, and costs that may be as troublesome or more so than the current range of problems.
in particular, as american failures in iraq and af- ghanistan have underscored, the critical question that the United states would need to address in the event of an invasion of iran is how to build a stable, secure, and at least relatively pro-amer- ican state a er toppling the government. While american missteps in Mesopotamia and central asia have certainly furnished Washington with a wealth of lessons about how to do better the next time around, the idea of applying these lessons to iran—a country with three times the population
30 For experts making this argument, see, for instance, Yair ettinger, “Former Mossad chief Downplays iranian reat,”
Haaretz, october 18, 2007, available at <http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/914171.html>; tim McGirk and aaron Klein, “israel’s Debate over an iran strike,” Time, July 24, 2008; Kenneth M. Pollack, e Persian Puzzle: e Con ict between
Iran and America (New York: random house, 2004),
pp. 382-386; Barry r. Posen, “We can Live with a Nuclear iran,” New York Times, February 27, 2006.
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
and four times the land mass of iraq—is daunt- ing. Moreover, since one of the lessons is clearly that large numbers of troops are needed to secure the country for months a er an invasion and that those troops could only be provided by a massive, long-term call-up of National Guard and military reserve units that might wreck the all-volunteer force, it is just unclear how the United states could reasonably expect to handle postwar iran if the american people ever did change their per- spective enough that an invasion became politi- cally feasible.
e goal of the invasion option of iran would be to forcibly remove the iranian government, crush its military power to prevent any remnants of the regime from reasserting their control over iranian society, and extirpate its nuclear programs. Un- fortunately, as Washington learned in iraq (and to a lesser extent in afghanistan), that cannot be the limit of american goals. as the wars in iraq and afghanistan have demonstrated, the United states would inevitably have to ensure that a rea- sonably stable and reasonably pro-american (or at least less anti-american) government would be able to assume power and rule the country a er U.s. forces departed.
Like iraq, iran is too intrinsically and strategically important a country for the United states to be able to march in, overthrow its government, and then march out, leaving chaos in its wake. iran ex- ports about 2.5 million barrels per day of oil and, with the right technology, it could produce even more. it also has one of the largest reserves of nat- ural gas in the world. ese resources make iran an important supplier of the energy needs of the global economy. iran does not border saudi ara- bia—the lynchpin of the oil market—or Kuwait, but it does border iraq, another major oil pro- ducer and a country where the United states now has a great deal at stake. Moreover, iran borders
turkey, a Nato ally, as well as afghanistan (where the United states has a growing investment) and Pakistan—one of the most unstable and danger- ous countries in the world. us the impact of spillover from chaos in iran would likely threaten vital american interests in several locations.
consequently, if the United states ever were to contemplate an invasion of iran, it would likely nd itself in the same bind as it is in iraq: the country is too important to be allowed to slide into chaos, but given iran’s internal divisions and dysfunctional governmental system, it would be a major undertaking to rebuild it. as with iraq and afghanistan, the reconstruction of iran would likely be the longest and hardest part of any inva- sion, and would generate risks and costs so great that a decision to invade could only be respon- sibly made if there were a concomitant commit- ment to a full-scale e ort to ensure the country’s stability a erwards.
in theory, the United states could mount an in- vasion at any time. e president could order an invasion tomorrow, which would seem to make this option very time e cient. But the reality, of course, is that it is highly unlikely that he would do so, and there are many hurdles to be cleared before the rst troops would hit the beaches. al- though an invasion might accomplish its objec- tives more quickly than engagement or the vari- ous regime change options, it still would require months of military and logistical preparations, and might take even longer to lay the political and international foundations.
it seems highly unlikely that the United states would mount an invasion without any provo- cation or other buildup. even in the case of the Bush administration’s march to war with iraq in 2003—which was about as fast as it is possible to imagine—there was almost a year of preparations,
starting with ominous statements from the ad- ministration, new UN security council resolu- tions, a congressional vote, the buildup of forces, and an ultimatum to saddam husayn. Moreover, in the case of iraq, there was a legal basis that the Bush administration could rely upon (the same basis that Bush 41 and clinton had used to justify various air- and missile strikes against iraq dur- ing the 1990s). in the case of an invasion of iran, there does not yet seem to be a legal predicate to justify the use of force—which is important more because it is required under domestic U.s. law than because of the need for international legal sanction. if a provocation or a UN security coun- cil resolution is needed to provide that legal basis, that also will take time.
in fact, if the United states were to decide that to garner greater international support, galvanize U.s. domestic support, and/or provide a legal jus- ti cation for an invasion, it would be best to wait for an iranian provocation, then the time frame for an invasion might stretch out inde nitely. With only one real exception, since the 1978 revolution, the islamic republic has never will- ingly provoked an american military response, although it certainly has taken actions that could have done so if Washington had been looking for a ght.31 us it is not impossible that teh- ran might take some action that would justify an american invasion. and it is certainly the case that if Washington sought such a provocation, it could take actions that might make it more likely that tehran would do so (although being too ob- vious about this could nullify the provocation). however, since it would be up to iran to make the provocative move, which iran has been wary of doing most times in the past, the United states would never know for sure when it would get the
requisite iranian provocation. in fact, it might never come at all.
as far as the time requirements for the military side of the option, it might take a few months to move the forces into the region, and then anywhere from one to six months to conduct the invasion, depend- ing on a variety of circumstances—particularly how much U.s. forces had been built up in the region before the attack was launched. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the rapid launch of the war against iraq was a function of the inad- equate number of troops and planning for postwar reconstruction. since Washington would not want to repeat that tragic mistake in iran, the buildup for an invasion of iran would have to be bigger and thus take longer to complete than the buildup for the iraq invasion. Finally, the preparations for iraq were greatly aided by a superb network of ameri- can bases in the Persian Gulf. absent some dramat- ic iranian provocation, it seems very unlikely that those same countries (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Britain, in particular) would allow the United states to use those same facilities for an invasion of iran, potentially further lengthening the time required for the invasion itself.
as in both iraq and afghanistan, postinvasion reconstruction would be the longest (and possi- bly the bloodiest) part of the whole endeavor. if it were handled very well, applying all of the lessons learned in iraq and afghanistan, it might require only a few years of major military and nancial commitments, followed by a signi cant diminu- tion of U.s. presence and aid therea er. if the re- construction were to go badly, either because of american mistakes or forces beyond U.s. control, it could take many more years to produce an ac- ceptable end state.
31 During the tanker War of 1987-1988 (a part of the iran-iraq War), U.s. naval forces were deployed to the Persian Gulf to escort Kuwaiti oil tankers that had been attacked by iranian naval and air forces. iran responded by mining the Persian Gulf and conducting a number of attacks and aggressive actions against american naval forces, which at times did trigger american military responses.
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
overview of the Policy
a ground invasion of iran designed to overthrow the government would be onerous but rather straightforward. indeed, it would likely have con- siderable parallels with the overthrow of saddam’s regime in iraq and the taliban regime in afghan- istan. Because the United states probably could not mount the invasion using bases in any of iran’s neighboring countries (discussed in greater detail below), a U.s. Marine force would rst have to seize control of a regional port, a er which the United states could establish a logistical base and build up its ground and air forces before embark- ing on a “march” of several hundred miles north to tehran.
e key to this policy option is not the mechanics of its implementation but mustering both the po- litical support and the resources needed to make it work, and dealing with the potentially painful consequences of either its success or failure.
e requirements for the invasion option are complex. in some ways, they are well within american capabilities; in other ways, they are po- tentially well beyond our current reach.
The Question of a Provocation
as noted above, in the section on the time frame for an invasion, whether the United states decides to invade iran with or without a provocation is a critical consideration. With provocation, the international diplomatic and domestic political requirements of an invasion would be mitigated, and the more outrageous the iranian provocation (and the less that the United states is seen to be goading iran), the more these challenges would be diminished. in the absence of a su ciently horri c provocation, meeting these requirements would be daunting.
For purposes of this analytic exercise, we as- sume that a U.s. invasion of iran is not triggered by an overt, incontrovertible, and unforgivable act of aggression—something on the order of an iranian-backed 9/11, in which the planes bore iranian markings and tehran boasted about its sponsorship. First, this seems exceptionally un- likely given iran’s history of avoiding such acts, at least since the end of the iran-iraq War. second, were that ever to happen, the circumstances of an invasion would become almost easy—the United states would suddenly have enormous domestic and (perhaps grudging) international support for undertaking an invasion. indeed, the entire ques- tion of “options” would become irrelevant at that point: what american president could refrain from an invasion a er the iranians had just killed several thousand american civilians in an attack in the United states itself?
Beyond such a blatant act of inexcusable aggres- sion, the question of provocation gets murky. Most european, asian, and Middle eastern publics are dead set against any american military action against iran derived from the current di erences between iran and the international community— let alone iran and the United states. other than a tehran-sponsored 9/11, it is hard to imagine what would change their minds. For many democracies and some fragile autocracies to which Washington would be looking for support, this public antipa- thy is likely to prove decisive.
For instance, saudi arabia is positively apoplec- tic about the iranians’ nuclear program, as well as about their mischief making in Lebanon, iraq, and the Palestinian territories. Yet, so far, riyadh has made clear that it will not support military opera- tions of any kind against iran. certainly that could change, but it is hard to imagine what it would take. For instance, one might speculate that further ira- nian progress on enrichment might su ce, but the iranians already have the theoretical know-how and plenty of feedstock to make the ssile material
for a bomb.32 Given that this situation has not been enough to push the Gcc to support military op- erations against iran, what would? certainly iran testing a nuclear device might, but at that point, it almost certainly would be too late: if the United states is going to invade iran, it will want to do so before iran has developed actual nuclear weapons, not a er. it is hard to know what else iran could do that would change Gcc attitudes about the use of force unless new leaders took power in the Gulf who were far more determined to stop iran than the current leadership is. and the Gcc states tend to be more worried about the threat from iran than european or east asian countries are.
Given all this, there does not seem to be much utility in examining an american invasion of iran in the context of an overt iranian attack that pro- duced mass american civilian casualties. it does not seem to be a scenario that the United states is likely to face, nor is it an “option” for american foreign policy because the outcry from the ameri- can people for an overwhelming military response would drown out all other possible approaches. e more challenging scenario for the United states, and one that is still a potential policy op- tion, is to mount an invasion of iran without an outrageous provocation, simply to eliminate iran as a source of problems in the Middle east. in this situation, Washington would be e ectively decid- ing to “go it alone” because it will be too di cult to create the circumstances that would result in any meaningful aid from other countries. it is this sce- nario that is most relevant to this study, and there- fore the scenario that will be treated below.
Given the context laid out above, the diplomat- ic requirements for an invasion of iran would
appear to be impossible and therefore irrelevant. if the United states decides to invade iran with- out some dramatic iranian provocation, the likelihood of international support will be slim to none. to be blunt, israel is probably the only country that would publicly support an ameri- can invasion of iran, and because of its di cult circumstances, it would not be in a position to furnish much assistance of any kind to the United states. Many arab states would welcome the demise of the islamic republic in private, but probably none would publicly support what would be widely considered an illegitimate ac- tion and one more act of american aggression against another Muslim state. all of them would be terri ed that the result would be as harmful to them as the invasion and botched occupation of iraq. e europeans, russians, chinese, and entire third world could be counted on to vehe- mently oppose another rogue act of american unilateralism.
as a result, the United states would have to opt for an invasion in the expectation that it would have e ectively no support from any of iran’s neighbors. e Gulf states would warn the United states not to do it and probably would prevent the use of american bases in their countries for the operation. No iraqi or afghan government, no matter how beholden to the United states, would want to risk supporting a war that so few of their people, their neighbors, or their islamic brethren would support. e russians would likely come down hard on the caucasus and central asian states not to support another act of american aggression so close to their borders—although this might just be enough to provoke countries like Georgia and azerbaijan to allow the United states some modest basing rights in expectation of american protection against Moscow.
32 admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint chiefs of sta , has suggested that they have even moved forward to the point where they have enough low-enriched uranium to make the highly enriched uranium for a bomb. steven r. hurst, “Mullen: iran has Fissile Materials for a Bomb,” associated Press, March 2, 2009.
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
as with iraq and afghanistan, the military re- quirements for an invasion of iran could prove deceptive. e invasion itself would be a major military operation, but one well within the ca- pability of american forces. once in, however, a long-term commitment would be necessary, which would greatly increase the military re- quirements.
although iran’s armed forces are roughly twice as large as saddam’s were in 2003 (750,000 to 1 mil- lion in the iranian armed forces today compared to about 400,000 to 500,000 in iraq’s various mili- tary services back then) and probably would per- form somewhat better, they are clearly outclassed by the american military. consequently, an ini- tial invasion force might be comparable to that employed against iraq in 2003. Four U.s. divi- sions and a British division spearheaded the 2003 invasion and disposed of the iraqi dictator and provoked the dissolution of his military and po- lice forces in a matter of weeks. a h american division aided in the latter stages of the invasion; all told, about 200,000 Western military person- nel were involved.
against iran, a U.s. invasion force would face two primary military obstacles: insurgents and ter- rain. iran is a country principally of mountains and deserts—two of the most di cult military terrain types. in addition, iran has considerable experience with guerrilla warfare through its long association with hizballah and the support it provided for the latter’s (successful) guerrilla war against israel in southern Lebanon. a er watch- ing the american blitzkrieg to Baghdad, the ira- nians have concluded that the best way to ght the U.s. military would be through a protracted insurgency, bleeding american forces (especially as they wend their way through the long, di cult mountain chains that fence in the iranian heart- land) and wearing them down.
to deal with the terrain and iran’s likely defensive strategy, an american invasion of iran would re- quire a variety of di erent kinds of forces. First, it would probably involve a signi cant contin- gent of Marines (two to four regimental combat teams, or about 15,000 to 30,000 Marines) to seize a beachhead and then a major port at one of four or ve general locations where such a landing could be staged along the iranian coast- line. to get past the mountains, the United states would then want large numbers of air mobile forces—the brigades of the 101st air assault Di- vision and the 82nd airborne Division, and pos- sibly the 173rd airborne Brigade as well. Beyond that, the United states would want at least one, and possibly as many as three, heavy armored di- visions for the drive on tehran itself (depending on the extent to which the Marines and air mo- bile units are tied down holding the landing area and mountain passes open, as well as providing route security for the massive logistical e ort that would be needed to supply the american expedi- tion). again, this suggests a force roughly compa- rable to that employed for operation iraqi Free- dom: four to six divisions amounting to 200,000 to 250,000 troops.
assuming that Washington receives little or no support from neighboring states to mount an invasion, a large naval commitment would also be required (one thing that would be di erent from the invasion of iraq). it is unlikely that the United states could move forward with an enor- mous military operation without the iranian government getting a sense of what was headed their way. is being the case, the United states would have to expect that the iranians would ght back with everything they had, and un- der these circumstances, the iranian naval and air forces would do everything they could to close the strait of hormuz and otherwise attack american naval forces to prevent them from landing U.s. ground forces on iranian soil. iran certainly has some potentially dangerous capa-
bilities, but if the U.s. Navy and air Force bring their full might to bear, they could methodically crush iran’s air and sea defenses in a matter of weeks, with relatively few losses. however, this will require a major commitment of american minesweeping, surface warfare, and (especially) air assets.
Beyond this, the navy would likely have to con- tribute much greater air support to the ground campaign than was the case for the invasions of either iraq or afghanistan. certainly, some U.s. aircra (like B-2 stealth bombers) could y from the continental United states (and Washington might get British permission to use the island of Diego Garcia for B-1s, B-52s, and tankers), but unless the Gcc states, iraq, and/or central asian countries could be persuaded to allow the U.s. air Force to operate from nearby air elds, the vast majority of american aircra would have to operate from carriers in the Persian Gulf and North arabian sea. Given the extent to which modern U.s. ground operations rely on air sup- port (including during occupation and counter- insurgency campaigns), this suggests that three or more carriers would need to be committed to this campaign, at least until iranian air bases could be secured and developed to handle U.s. air Force planes.
similarly, if the United states were denied access to its many bases in the Persian Gulf region, as seems likely, the navy would have to bring in ev- erything needed to support the invasion, and U.s. engineers would have to build facilities at iranian ports to make them capable of supporting a mas- sive force.
indeed, because it is likely that the United states would have little regional support, because the distances involved would be much greater than in iraq (distances from major iranian ports to tehran are anywhere from one and a half to three times as great as the distance from the Kuwaiti
border to Baghdad), and because of the much more di cult terrain, the logistical requirements for an invasion of iran could be considerably more demanding than those for an invasion of iraq.
Finally, it is worth noting that this undertaking would likely create a desperate need for a range of specialized forces that are already in short supply. special forces units would be in high demand for an invasion of iran, but that would mean divert- ing them from iraq and afghanistan, where they are also desperately needed. and if the supply of arabic speakers was inadequate for the demands of the war in iraq, it will seem luxurious in com- parison to the numbers of Farsi speakers avail- able in the U.s. military and the government at large (despite a heroic e ort by the Defense Lan- guage institute to turn out more Farsi speakers since 2001).
requirements of the occupation
Given the signi cant (but decreasing) U.s. com- mitment in iraq and the considerable (and in- creasing) U.s. commitment in afghanistan, as- sembling an invasion force for iran would be a daunting task. however, it would pale compared to the needs of the postcon ict security and re- construction mission.
is will likely prove true even if Washington has learned the lessons of iraq and mounts the inva- sion and occupation of iran exactly as it should have done in iraq. all low-intensity con ict op- erations, whether a counterinsurgency campaign or a stability operation like securing postinvasion iran, require relatively large numbers of security forces because the sine qua non of success is se- curing the civilian populace against widespread violence. scholars and counterinsurgency ex- perts have suggested that it takes about 20 secu- rity personnel per 1,000 people to secure civilians against insurgencies and other forms of violence
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common in postcon ict reconstruction.33 is ratio suggests that an occupation force of 1.4 mil- lion troops would be needed for iran.
ere is reason to believe that high-quality troops with lavish support assets (like the U.s. military) can get away with less than the canonical gure. however, even if the United states, by relying on far superior training, technology, and tactics, could cut that number in half, the remainder still represents essentially the entire active duty com- ponent of the U.s. army and Marine corps. even if it were only necessary to maintain such a large force in iran for the rst six months, a er which the United states could begin drawing down its forces quickly (as experience in the Balkans and even iraq suggests is possible), such a commit- ment would certainly require a massive mobili- zation of the National Guard and both the army and Marine reserves. it might necessitate their total mobilization for at least six to twelve months and might also require major redeployments away from iraq and afghanistan.
again, assuming a best-case scenario in which the proper application of the lessons learned from iraq and afghanistan enables the invasion and occupation of iran to go more easily and be more peaceful and successful, it would take several years to establish a stable, legitimate government with competent, loyal security forces that can take over the security of their country from the United
states. During that time, the United states would doubtless have to maintain 100,000 to 200,000 troops in iran, even under ideal circumstances of full iranian cooperation and minimal resistance (or even criminality). if one assumes that dur- ing the same period, total U.s. military commit- ments in iraq and afghanistan will also remain in the 100,000 to 150,000 troop range (with the assumption of a declining commitment to iraq and a growing commitment to afghanistan, albeit smaller than the one in iraq at its peak), it is hard to imagine how the current level of american ground forces could sustain such deployments over the period of years that would be required. only a major, rapid increase in the size of the armed forces would make that possible without destroying the National Guard and military re- serve systems—an increase that perhaps would necessitate some form of partial conscription.
Moreover, it obviously would be unwise to as- sume the best case. e Bush administration’s insistence that only the best case was possible in iraq lies at the root of the concatenation of mis- takes that produced the worst case in iraq from 2003 to 2006. iranians are ercely nationalistic, and while many would welcome the end of their current regime and the establishment of a better relationship with the United states, the evidence suggests that most would ercely oppose a U.s. invasion. accounting for more realistic scenarios increases the challenges and requirements for
33 Bruce ho man, “insurgency and counterinsurgency in iraq,” raND corp., June 2004; Kalev i. sepp, “Best Practices in counterinsurgency,” Military Review 85, no. 3 (May–June 2005): 9; James t. Quinlivan, “ e Burden of Victory: e Painful arithmetic of stability operations,” RAND Review, summer 2003, available at <http://www.rand.org/publications/randreview/issues/summer2003/burden.html>. also, James t. Quinlivan, “Force requirements in stability operations,” Parameters (Winter 1995): 56–69. Quinlivan has demonstrated that stabilizing a country requires roughly twenty security personnel (troops and police) per thousand inhabitants, just as counterinsurgency operations do. in his words, the objective “is not to destroy an enemy but to provide security for residents so that they have enough con dence to manage their daily a airs and to support a government authority of their own.” even in iraq, this “canonical” gure has proven valid. iraq’s population outside of the Kurdish zone—which was adequately secured by the Kurdish peshmerga ( ghters) and thus never experienced the same levels of violence as the rest of the country—was roughly 23 million people. is would suggest the need for 460,000 committed security personnel. although U.s. troops working with small numbers of competent and reliable iraqi security forces were able to secure large swathes of the population within six to twelve months of the start of the surge, the change in U.s. strategy and tactics, the end of the Battle of Baghdad, and the onset of the anbar awakening (all of which occurred in late 2006 and early 2007), they were not able to secure the entire country, and most of southern iraq—with nearly 40 percent of iraq’s population—lay beyond their control. only when the total of U.s. and competent iraqi troops exceeded 450,000-500,000 in early 2008 were these forces able to expand their control to the south without jeopardizing the gains made in the center and west.
the occupation of iran even more, to levels that realistically only could be met by a major, rapid expansion of the U.s. armed forces, for which the american people appear to have little interest.
Because the military requirements of the occupa- tion and reconstruction of iran are so daunting, and the likelihood of international support in this scenario appears so low, the rst and most impor- tant requirement would be the overwhelming po- litical support of the american people for an in- vasion. simply put, compared to U.s. involvement in iraq, the invasion and reconstruction of iran is likely to be a more taxing task—even assuming that the United states avoids repeating the mis- takes of iraq—and there will be even less foreign assistance to accomplish it.
is means that the president would have to have such strong and enduring support from the american people that he would be able to con- duct the invasion and occupation of iran employ- ing essentially only american resources and in the face of widespread international animosity. he might need to mobilize fully the National Guard as well as the army, Marine, and possibly Navy reserves and keep them in uniform for months or even years if there is considerable iranian re- sistance, as there may well be. in worst-case sce- narios, the president might even need to ask the american people to accept some form of limited conscription. if the occupation of iran were to go badly, there might be considerable american ca- sualties for long periods of time—possibly even more than in iraq at its worst because of the more di cult terrain, the likely greater hostility of the populace, and the greater pro ciency in guerrilla warfare of the iranian military.
if the president can secure this kind of support, an invasion of iran is a viable option. Without such support, the invasion and occupation of iran
would likely be as mismanaged and tragic as it was in iraq from 2003 to 2006.
Pros and Cons
e following are the advantages and disadvantag- es of the Invasion approach.
e most important and obvious advantage of mounting an invasion of iran is that it would “solve” all of Washington’s current problems with tehran. iran’s nuclear pro- gram would be obliterated. e regime that supported so many terrorist, insurgent, and revolutionary groups that sought to harm the United states and/or its regional allies would be gone. hizballah, hamas, the Pal- estinian islamic Jihad, and the like would have lost one of their most important back- ers. and Washington would no longer have to worry about how to deal with a regime it considers both threatening and madden- ingly opaque.
Moreover, a policy focused entirely on mounting an invasion of iran would be implemented entirely under american control. Washington might nd itself in a position where it would not need to wor- ry about convincing reluctant allies, since there would be no expectation that they could be convinced nor any expectation that they would help. Furthermore, Wash- ington would not need to persuade the ira- nian leadership (or even iranian dissidents) to cooperate with the United states—it could force them to do so, or simply get rid of them and bring in a whole new group.
Finally, it would mean employing the most powerful, most skillful, and most deci- sive tool in the U.s. strategic toolkit—the
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american armed forces—to “ x” the iran problem. Neither american covert opera- tives nor diplomats nor aid mavens have had a track record as good as U.s. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines over the years.
an invasion of iran would be extremely costly in a whole variety of ways. iran is arguably a more complex, convoluted, and con ict-ridden society than either iraq or afghanistan. But like iraq, it would be too important to be cast aside a er deposing the regime and razing all its nuclear and terrorist-support facilities. e invasion it- self would be large and costly, but the e ort needed to occupy, secure, and then build a new iranian state—one capable of govern- ing the country e ectively without falling into chaos or inciting new anti-american- ism—would be far more so. even if Wash- ington has learned all of the lessons of iraq and afghanistan and handles an invasion of iran in a much better fashion, this option would cost tens—if not hundreds—of bil- lions of dollars a year for ve to ten years. it would require the commitment of the better part of U.s. ground forces for several years, and could necessitate a much greater commitment and expansion of american ground forces than at any time since the second World War. it might even require the institution of partial conscription for some period of time and would divert bad- ly needed assets away from both iraq and afghanistan.
another inevitable cost would be in ameri- can lives lost (not to mention iranian civil- ian deaths). hundreds or possibly thou- sands of american military personnel would die in the invasion itself. erea er, casualty levels would depend dramatically
on both the extent of iranian resistance and the competence of the american security e ort. e remarkable success of american forces in iraq since 2007 dem- onstrates that the right numbers of troops employing the right tactics in pursuit of the right strategy can secure a country at much lower cost in blood than inadequate num- bers of troops improperly employed. Prior to the surge—and during its heated early months when U.s. troops were ghting to regain control of iraq’s streets—american military deaths were running at 70 to 80 a month. once that ght had been won, they fell to roughly 5 to 15 a month. is suggests that U.s. casualties during the oc- cupation and reconstruction of iran could vary enormously; however, only in the best-case scenario—where the securing of iran is as smooth as the Nato securing of Bosnia—should policymakers expect min- imal casualties. in more plausible but still favorable scenarios where iranian resis- tance approximates iraqi levels of violence a er the surge, the United states should still expect a dozen soldiers and Marines to be killed each month, on average, for sever- al years. in worst-case scenarios, in which the United states mishandles operations in iran as badly as it did initially in iraq, those numbers could run into the hundreds each month, or worse.
Washington would have to expect tehran to retaliate against american targets outside of iran. iran has a more formidable ballis- tic missile arsenal than saddam had in 1991 and a far more extensive and capable net- work to mount terrorist attacks beyond its borders. Whether the iranians could pull o a catastrophic attack—along the lines of 9/11—would depend on how much time they had to prepare for such an operation and how well developed their contingency
plans were at the time. Washington has long believed that tehran maintains extensive contingency plans for all manner of terrorist attacks against american targets for just such an eventuality, and may even have practiced them at various times. even if such attacks ended with the fall of the regime, since an invasion might take as much as six months from the time the rst U.s. Navy warships began to clear the strait of hormuz to the removal of the clerical regime, the United states would have to prepare to prevent such attacks—and live with the failure to do so— for at least this time period.
in addition to the potentially heavy costs, an invasion also entails running a very signi - cant set of risks. as noted, iranian society is hardly paci c. a botched reconstruction, like the one in iraq, could unleash a Pando- ra’s box of problems both inside the coun- try and out. Various iranian ethnic groups might attempt to declare independence, in- evitably setting o a civil war with the coun- try’s Persian majority and creating the risk of drawing in iran’s various neighbors to protect their own interests. as in iraq, iran’s oil wealth would be a tremendous driver of both internal con ict and external inter- vention. chaos and con ict could jeopar- dize iran’s oil and gas exports, and would certainly complicate the security problems of iraq, afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Under the circumstances postulated in this chapter, a U.s. invasion of iran could an- tagonize much of the world. in the short term, this could jeopardize the interna- tional cooperation Washington so desper- ately needs to deal with the international
nancial crisis and a dozen or more press- ing geostrategic crises. it may be di - cult for other countries to heed america’s wishes on Darfur, the arab-israeli con ict, North Korea, alternative energy and global warming, Nato enlargement, or other similarly thorny issues in the a ermath of an invasion of iran that many may see as even less justi ed than the invasion of sad- dam husayn’s iraq.
Moreover, an invasion of iran has the po- tential to damage the longer-term strategic interests of the United states. such an inva- sion could well rede ne america’s position in the international order in a particularly deleterious manner. especially given that such a war would probably have less sup- port than the invasion of iraq, and would be undertaken by an administration other than that of George W. Bush, it would likely loom far larger than the iraq War in the thinking of other people and governments. it could well settle the debate over whether the Unit- ed states is an aggressive, unilateralist impe- rial power or a mostly benign and uniquely unsel sh hegemon. americans have always seen themselves as the latter, and there are many people around the world who still view the United states that way despite the events of 2001-2008—in large part because some agree that there were justi cations for the war in iraq, and others simply blame american actions on an aberrant admin- istration. an invasion of iran could elimi- nate the lingering basis for that support and profoundly alter global perspectives on the United states, which over time would inevi- tably translate into commensurate shi s in policy against this country.
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the osiraQ oPtioN airstrikes
Because there is little expectation that the obama administration would be interested in paying the costs and running the risks associ- ated with an invasion—let alone convincing the american people to do so at a time of national economic crisis—those who believe that force is the best, or even the only, way to address the problems of iran are more likely to advocate a more limited campaign of airstrikes against key iranian targets. in particular, such a policy would most likely target iran’s various nuclear facilities (possibly including key weapons delivery systems such as ballistic missiles) in a greatly expanded version of the israeli preventive strikes against the iraqi nuclear program at tuwaitha in 1981 (usu- ally referred to by the name of the French reac- tor under construction, the osiraq reactor) and against the nascent syrian program at Dayr az- Zawr in 2007. e United states might be able to provide a reasonable justi cation for such a cam- paign by building on the fact that the UN security council has repeatedly proscribed iran’s nuclear enrichment activities in resolutions enacted un- der chapter Vii of the UN charter, which are binding on all member states.34 Moreover, there is
some expectation that a determined air campaign against iran’s nuclear facilities might set back its program by a meaningful period of time—at least some years.
e United states might mount further strikes against iranian command and control, terrorist support, or even conventional military targets. however, these would more likely be staged in re- sponse to iranian attacks against the United states or its allies that were mounted in retaliation for the initial round of american strikes on iranian nuclear facilities. simply destroying these other iranian assets would have little material impact on american interests or iran’s ability to harm those interests. terrorist camps, ministries, and headquarters buildings can all be rebuilt quickly, and it is unlikely that any damage done to them or the personnel within would somehow cripple iran’s ability to subvert regional governments or wage asymmetric warfare against the United states or its allies. e United states could cer- tainly obliterate large chunks of the iranian con- ventional military, which would take a long time for iran to replace, but iran’s conventional forces
WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy Toward Iran
34 We recognize that a su cient legal basis for such an attack does not yet exist because the resolutions enacted so far speci cally rule out the use of force by other member states to bring iran into compliance with the security council’s demands. consequently, if the U.s. government were to decide to pursue this course of action, it would have to establish a stronger legal basis for its actions to meet U.S. legal requirements before it could do so.
are so weak that they have little geopolitical value, and therefore destroying them would have little impact on either the american or iranian posi- tions in the Middle east and southwest asia.
us airstrikes against iranian nuclear sites are typically seen as part of a strategy meant princi- pally to deprive it of its nuclear capabilities in a way that diplomacy could not. airstrikes against these other target sets (terrorist training facilities, command and control, and conventional military forces) do not t well into the concept of a dis- arming strike because they would not materially weaken iran for very long.
alternatively, the United states could choose to at- tack these non-nuclear target sets in pursuit of a dif- ferent strategy, a coercive one. is strategy would not disarm iran, but would put at risk those things that the regime values most, in an attempt to force tehran to change its policy of supporting various terrorist groups, stoking instability in the region, and pursuing nuclear weapons. however, there is little support in the United states for employing a coercive strategy of repeated airstrikes against iran to try to force tehran to alter its course.
in many ways, this absence is remarkable given the long-standing support for coercive air cam- paigns among both air power enthusiasts and policymakers. at various points in the past, nu- merous american analysts, military o cers, and political leaders have suggested an approach to iran that relies on coercive air campaigns; thus its absence in the current debate is striking. e nationalistic chauvinism, ideological fervor, and political dysfunctions of the islamic republic, coupled with the long history of coercive air cam- paigns failing to live up to the claims of their pro- ponents, seem to have produced a consensus that
a coercive air campaign against iran would likely fail. simply put, it does not seem like the iranian regime would be susceptible to the kind of pres- sure applied by coercive air power, and coercive air campaigns are notoriously bad at successfully compelling the target country to do what the at- tacking country wants.35
consequently, the airstrikes option against iran has focused principally on a campaign intended to disarm iran—to strip it of its nuclear capability—in the expectation that this would greatly reduce for some period of time the threat iran poses to the United states and its allies. of course, a key ques- tion debated even by its advocates is “how long a period of time,” which in turn raises the question of whether this option is su cient by itself to address e ectively U.s. concerns about iran, or whether it is merely the rst piece of a more complex approach. some proponents suggest that airstrikes constitute a stand-alone policy in that the United states could simply resume its attacks whenever the iranians began to rebuild their nuclear facilities, as most observers suspect they would. e expectation is that at some point, the iranians would tire of being bombed and give up, or the people would tire of a regime that keeps provoking american airstrikes and oust it. other proponents of this policy argue that repeated bombings of iran would be di cult to sustain (and might not lead to the regime’s re- moval), and therefore, the airstrikes option would be designed simply to buy time, hopefully sev- eral years, during which the United states could orchestrate other actions against iran—such as a Persuasion approach that would carry the demon- strated threat of further uses of force as a very po- tent “stick,” or a more determined e ort at regime change that would also bene t from the demon- strated willingness of the United states to employ force against the iranian regime.
35 on the di culties of coercive air campaigns, see robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (ithaca, N.Y.: cornell University Press, 1996).
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e goal of an air campaign would be to obliter- ate much or all of iran’s nuclear program, which is spread over a number of major nuclear energy related sites, on the assumption that any of them could be used to develop weapons. e list of targets would likely include at least the well-known nuclear research reactor at Bushehr, a range of locations re- lated to iran’s uranium processing and enrichment program, and the arak plutonium separation plant, as well as sites believed to be involved in producing warheads or other components for nuclear weap- ons. it might also include other targets involved in developing iran’s long-range missile force, which is the most obvious method iran would have of using nuclear weapons should it acquire them.
if all of these targets were successfully destroyed, such a military operation might delay iran’s attain- ment of a nuclear weapon by a decade or more. a er israel’s 1981 osiraq raid, saddam husayn was unable to build a “basement bomb” over the following decade (although by the time of opera- tion Desert storm in 1991, he had come close). such a lengthy delay might provide enough time for iran’s imperfect political process to produce a new leadership before the existing one could cre- ate a bomb surreptitiously.
a more modest (or less successful) american or israeli aerial campaign would create havoc in the iranian nuclear program but would not necessarily accomplish the physical annihilation of all facilities. Unless iran has large secret facilities of which West- ern intelligence and the iaea are unaware, such a campaign could also set back iran’s nuclear pro- gram, but probably much less so than a larger and more successful strike. it would be di cult to quan- tify, but a limited or less successful attack might delay iran’s attainment of a nuclear capability by anywhere from one to four years. if iran has man- aged to build large, secret facilities, like a second main uranium enrichment site, the delay to iran’s
attainment of its rst bomb could be much less. is would be particularly true if iran had moved enough uranium hexa uoride from known sites to have fuel for the centrifuges at the second site.
in short, if iran is presently on track to have a nuclear bomb between 2010 and 2015, a highly successful major air campaign in which all of iran’s nuclear facilities were destroyed might con- ceivably push back that time frame to the 2015- 2025 range. however, a less successful strike, a purposely more limited strike, or one that misses major iranian nuclear facilities because they were unknown at the time might only push that win- dow back to 2010-2017. it is worth underscoring that all such time projections are rough estimates at best, given the huge gaps in knowledge about iran’s nuclear program.
it is also important to note that the airstrikes op- tion is designed solely to limit tehran’s capability to destabilize the Middle east and aggressively op- pose U.s. interests there by wielding nuclear weap- ons. it is not intended to produce regime change in tehran, nor is it meant to address iran’s other prob- lematic behavior—except in the indirect sense that if the iranian leadership believes that the United states is prone to employ force against it for actions that Washington dislikes, tehran might rein in its e orts across the board. however, this is hardly a guaranteed outcome; it is just as likely that iran would respond by ratcheting up its problematic behavior, both to retaliate for the american raids and potentially to make it di cult for the United states to maintain its military presence in the Per- sian Gulf. consequently, the goal of this option is simply to try to delay or even prevent iran from ac- quiring a nuclear capability in the expectation that doing so will make iran less of a threat.
to a great extent, the time frame for the airstrikes option against iran depends on a set of factors
similar to that governing a possible invasion. in theory, airstrikes against iran could be mounted in such a way that they are entirely under the con- trol of the United states and require virtually no foreign contributions. in this set of circumstances, all that matters is how fast the required american military forces can be deployed to the region—al- though even in this case, the desire to preserve at least tactical secrecy (if not strategic surprise) would likely make such deployments more time consuming than they otherwise might be.
however, as with an invasion, airstrikes against iran would certainly bene t from foreign support, particularly the willingness of regional U.s. allies to permit the use of bases near iran. Moreover, because it is more likely (still a relative statement) that the United states could secure such support for airstrikes as opposed to an invasion, Washing- ton may want to take the time to try to win over its regional allies in support of the airstrikes.
is raises many of the same issues discussed in the previous chapter regarding a provocation. airstrikes launched without some act of iranian aggression would likely nd little public support anywhere outside of israel. again, most arab gov- ernments might privately cheer, but they will nd it hard to do more than that. however, if the air- strikes were launched in response to an iranian provocation, the United states might nd arab, european, and asian acquiescence, even enthu- siasm, for them. us the more that the United states wants international political support for the air campaign (especially in the form of bases), the more important it would be for these strikes to come as a response to an act of iranian aggres- sion—and this means that Washington would have to be willing to wait (perhaps inde nitely) for the iranians to take such an action.
as with an invasion, it would ultimately be Wash- ington’s choice as to when to begin airstrikes against iran, but a er that, the U.s. government would have far less control over when this con ict
might end. in the case of an invasion, Washington would get to set the date for the invasion and could have some con dence that the regime would be gone six months later; however, the United states would then nd itself committed to a potentially open-ended reconstruction process. similarly, Washington could decide when and for how long to mount airstrikes against iran. however, imple- mentation of this policy would not be concluded when the smoke from the last bomb cleared. iran might retaliate, and the United states might feel the need to respond to iran’s retaliation. in conjunc- tion, or alternatively, iran might decide to rebuild its nuclear program, and the United states would have to decide whether to launch another round of airstrikes, a potentially recurring cycle. even if the iranians chose not to retaliate or rebuild, they might not end their support for violent extremist groups or e orts to subvert the regional status quo, which would then require the United states to nd some other way of convincing them to desist.
in short, airstrikes could be conducted relatively promptly, in a matter of weeks or months, and might buy time for other options (although they also might preclude many other options). how- ever, as a policy, they could take years or even decades to “succeed” and even then might only satisfy part of the U.s. agenda.
overview of the Policy
e core of this policy would be for the United states to mount an air campaign lasting anywhere from a few days to several weeks to strike at known iranian nuclear facilities, with many aim points at the typical site.
such a campaign would be well within U.s. mili- tary capabilities, but it would present a number of important challenges. For any aerial attack to be successful, it would naturally require good intelligence on the locations of all major irani- an nuclear facilities. it would demand weapons
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capable of reaching and destroying those facili- ties, including those in hardened structures well below the surface, as well as su cient aircra to carry them. it would involve an even greater number of support aircra —to suppress iran’s air defenses, shoot down its ghters, control the air battle, carry supplies, refuel american jets ying long distances, monitor iranian reactions, and as- sess the impact of strikes. and it would require extensive command and control, communica- tions, and intelligence capabilities to direct, coor- dinate, and evaluate the strikes.
having observed the israeli air Force’s virtuoso performance against the osiraq reactor, as well as numerous american air campaigns in the Middle east and the Balkans, iran’s revolution- ary regime broadly understands how the United states would seek to mount such an e ort and has devoted considerable e ort to hide, diversify, and protect its nuclear assets. Many iranian fa- cilities are in hardened concrete structures and/ or are deeply underground. some may even be in tunnels deep within mountains, although a number of nuclear weapons experts doubt that major operational centrifuge complexes would be located in such places. e National intelligence estimate of 2007 assessed that if iran were to pur- sue a bomb, it would likely use secret facilities to make highly enriched uranium (although the estimate famously concluded that iran probably halted any such e orts in 2003, when iran appar- ently stopped working on bomb design e orts). iran has natural uranium deposits and has now mastered the basic technology of uranium en- richment—at least at the theoretical level—up to and including centrifuge enrichment, so even if an attack were highly successful, the United states would still have to consider the possibility that iran could rebuild its entire program.
Given the multiplicity of targets and the lengths to which the regime has gone to protect them, israel’s 1981 osiraq strike or even its 2007 Dayr az-Zawr
raid in syria are not particularly good models for an air campaign against iran. e attack against iraq’s nuclear reactor, for instance, was conducted in a single mission by just eight bomb-dropping israeli F-16s and a half-dozen F-15s providing cover. e israelis relied on surprise, a stealthy ight pro le, and the relatively underdeveloped iraqi air defense network to ensure their mission’s success. in addition, they were attacking a single large, highly vulnerable, above-ground facility. it might be feasible to attack iran’s nuclear research reactor at Bushehr in this way, but that reactor is not the heart of the iranian nuclear program: it is not complemented by a reprocessing facility (since iran’s nuclear cooperation contract with russia requires that spent fuel be sent back to russia for treatment), and its loss would have little impact on iran’s uranium enrichment program. a robust campaign against iran’s nuclear complex would have to contend with a large number of potential iranian facilities—possibly several hundred—and an even greater number of potential aim points. a relatively modest campaign might still target sev- eral dozen key nuclear energy related sites. some of these targets might have to be struck repeatedly to allow a rst detonation to begin “burrowing” underground, exposing targets that could only be seriously damaged on a second or third pass.
Because of the number of aim points (which would mean relying on large numbers of nonstealthy air- cra ) and the possible need for repeated strikes, an american campaign would likely involve a de- liberate e ort to suppress iranian air defenses— something the much smaller israeli strikes simply avoided in 1981 and 2007. in particular, the United states would seek to destroy large warning radars, advanced surface-to-air missile batteries, key com- mand and control facilities for iran’s air defenses, and possibly the most dangerous iranian ghter squadrons (such as those employing F-14s and MiG-29s). consequently, an all-out air campaign could involve thousands of sorties by manned air- cra , unmanned drones, and cruise missiles over
several days, while even a more limited operation would probably require hundreds of sorties. By way of comparison, operation Desert Fox—a three-day air campaign against iraq in 1998 that targeted 100 iraqi facilities (many of them air defense sites, but about a dozen were weapons of mass destruction facilities)—required 650 manned aircra sorties and 415 cruise missile strikes.
it is beyond the scope of this paper to lay out all possible targets for an american air campaign against the iranian nuclear program, but it is use- ful to enumerate the most important ones to give a sense of what the U.s. strikes would aim to destroy. ese would likely include the following sites:
Bushehr research reactor. although this is nothing but a research reactor, it has re- ceived fuel from russia and could soon be operational, giving it the theoretical capac- ity to make enough plutonium for dozens of bombs.
arak heavy-Water reactor/Plutonium Separation Facility. is is iran’s princi- pal plutonium separation facility, although it is much further from completion than the Bushehr research reactor. is facility will produce purer plutonium than Bush- ehr does, making it easier to employ in a weapon. e location also hosts a nearby heavy-water production plant.
Natanz Uranium enrichment Plant. e uranium enrichment operation here is the centerpiece of iran’s nuclear program and the facility of greatest concern to the inter- national community. Natanz was designed to house as many as 50,000 gas centrifuges, although only several thousand of the more primitive P-1 models were operating by early 2009 (still enough to make a bomb’s worth of enriched uranium per year if re- con gured from producing low-enriched
uranium to highly enriched uranium). iran is already moving to install more advanced P-2 centrifuges, which have two and a half times the productive capacity of a P-1. e main centrifuge hall at Natanz is located 10 to 20 meters underground, but since 2007, the iranians have been digging even deeper tunnels into mountainsides near Natanz and may move centrifuge cascades and/ or uranium storage facilities there, where they would be even better protected against american penetrator munitions.
esfahan Nuclear Technology Center. is is iran’s main uranium fuel fabrication plant that produces the uranium hexa uo- ride gas feedstock for the centrifuges at Na- tanz. although this facility would doubt- less be a key target, iran already possesses enough uranium hexa uoride for dozens of nuclear weapons without needing to produce any more.
Parchin Nuclear Weapons Development Center. Parchin is a massive military re- search and testing facility. Parts of it are believed to be associated with the nuclear program, including explosives testing. in addition to Parchin, U.s. airstrikes would likely target other iranian facilities believed to be related to warhead design and pro- duction.
Karaj and Tehran Nuclear research Cen- ters. ese are important research and de- velopment facilities for the iranian nuclear program. Both consist of about a dozen buildings, mostly o ce buildings, labs, and storage facilities. Because they are located in the suburbs of the iranian capital, they create a considerable risk of collateral dam- age and require a major e ort to suppress the fairly extensive (by iranian standards) air defenses of tehran.
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advanced missile design, production, and testing facilities such as those at Karaj, Semnan, Sirjan, esfahan, Shahroud, and the Shaid hemat facility near tehran.
any centrifuge production facilities, if U.s. intelligence is able to discover them.
even a campaign designed to go a er this rel- atively limited target set would be a very large operation, probably on the scale of Desert Fox. Nevertheless, it would be smaller in scope than the kind of campaign military planners would prefer. From their perspective, a much larger operation designed to hit every facility possibly associated with the nuclear or missile programs would be preferable because this would provide the greatest con dence that the goal of the oper- ation—setting back the iranian nuclear program by a number of years—could be achieved. how- ever, the United states may feel it is not sustain- able to conduct an operation for the length of time needed to complete such a large campaign. a number of factors may contribute to this as- sessment: if other military contingencies made it impossible to bring su cient aircra to bear, if inadequate intelligence meant that the presi- dent did not feel comfortable bombing targets beyond those listed above, or if the United states wanted to maximize the element of surprise (to prevent iran from concealing key elements of its nuclear program and/or to minimize american casualties) by mounting the operation without a buildup of forces in the region. as such, Wash- ington might opt for such a “limited” variant of the policy.
as noted, even in this case, a small raid on the scale of iraq in 1981 or syria in 2007 would not be enough, given the sheer number of locations (including underground facilities) to be struck. instead, the United states would likely conduct its
“limited” operation in multiple stages. Dozens of cruise missile attacks—precisely timed to precede the arrival of manned aircra —would begin the assault by targeting the most crucial and capable radar sites, as well as other relatively so parts of the target set, such as above-ground communica- tions centers. ese would be followed by scores of shorter-range ghter bombers (Navy F-18s, possibly coupled with air Force F-15s and F-16s if bases in the Persian Gulf were available) and several dozen B-1 and B-2 bombers ying from Diego Garcia, if it is available, or from the United states, if it is not. Many of these aircra would carry deep-penetrating munitions and would be tasked to launch multiple weapons against a sin- gle aim point to ensure that deeply buried targets were destroyed.
No matter how con dent Washington was of achieving surprise, the United states would want to employ a number of air superiority ghters to counter any iranian ghters that got into the air, and airborne warning and control aircra to or- chestrate the air battle, along with aerial surveil- lance platforms to monitor iranian ground activ- ity. Military planners would also need satellites and unmanned intelligence and surveillance plat- forms, possibly supplemented by manned recon- naissance missions, to assess the damage done in the initial strike—and their ndings might neces- sitate follow-on strikes. is entire e ort would inevitably require considerable in- ight refueling from tankers based at Diego Garcia or wherever else possible. as a last resort, smaller navy tank- ers ying from carriers could at least refuel their own jets.
such an operation would hardly seem “limited” to the iranians, but it would be relatively small from the perspective of american air campaigns. it would have a reasonable likelihood of signi - cantly degrading iran’s highest value nuclear tar- gets, but it would be far from guaranteed to meet the goals of this policy. Moreover, by going lean
and emphasizing surprise over mass, such an approach would run a number of risks. Fighter cover would have to be minimized in order to achieve surprise and to maximize the basing available for attack aircra . consequently, iranian ghters might get lucky and knock down one or more american planes. e United states would not have enough stealth bombers to conduct even this smaller raid exclusively; it would also need to use more detectable bombers and/or navy attack jets in the mission. is would raise the poten- tial for american aircra to fall prey to iranian air defenses, although iran’s surface-to-air missile arsenal is very limited in both its coverage and ca- pability. Perhaps regional states would allow the United states to y ghter cover for the opera- tion from land bases or—best of all for american planners—to y stealthy F-22s that could conduct much of the strike themselves. But it could be hard to secure such support, as discussed below. overall, this operation would be feasible for the United states, but its overall e ectiveness would be hard to predict, and aircra losses could not be ruled out.
alternatively, Washington might decide that if it is going to mount an air campaign against iran— with all the costs and risks this course of action will inevitably entail—it should at least make sure that the campaign itself is powerful enough to maximize the likelihood that the United states achieves its objectives.
a more comprehensive air campaign would likely be structured and sequenced somewhat di er- ently than the scaled-down approach. in the rst wave of sorties, some strikes might be directed against key iranian nuclear facilities, especial- ly those containing assets that are believed to be easy for iran to move. But this type of cam- paign would likely focus its initial attacks on de- stroying iranian air defenses, including radars,
surface-to-air missiles, and ghter aircra , in or- der to establish air supremacy and thereby facili- tate additional waves of bombing directed at the nuclear targets themselves. e follow-on waves would likely strike and then restrike the targets listed above to ensure their destruction, but they would also go a er dozens of other iranian tar- gets that either play a more peripheral role in the nuclear program or for which the evidence of a tie to the nuclear program is less certain. Moreover, some sorties might be directed—or merely held in reserve—against iranian air and naval forces deployed along the strait of hormuz to prevent them from attempting to close the strait in re- sponse to the american strikes.
even in this approach, there would be incentives to achieve surprise, so the United states might want to begin the operation with only a single aircra carrier, or else time its start to an in- stance when one carrier was relieving another, so that two would be temporarily present. e real problems would come if the United states felt it needed three or four carriers for this operation. (it is worth noting that six U.s. carriers supported operation Desert storm, two supported Desert Fox, and three supported iraqi Freedom—and all of those campaigns were able to count on the use of Persian Gulf ground bases that might not be available for the campaign against iran consid- ered in this chapter.) Because it takes weeks to de- ploy a carrier to the Persian Gulf, and because it is very di cult to conceal a carrier’s destination, the con icting demands of surprise and mass would create a dilemma for a large air campaign against iran. e best solution would be the availability of land bases in the Persian Gulf, central asia, and the caucasus, to which air force jets could be rap- idly deployed. however, because the United states may nd little overt support for any military cam- paign against iran, this option might not be avail- able. in that case, Washington will have to decide whether surprise or mass is more important and deploy its aircra carriers accordingly.
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Facing Iranian retaliation
it would not be inevitable that iran would lash out violently in response to an american air campaign, but no american president should blithely assume that it would not. iran has not always retaliated for american attacks against it. initially a er the de- struction of Pan am Flight 103 in December 1988, many believed that this was iranian retaliation for the shooting down of iran air Flight 455 by the american cruiser Uss Vincennes in July of that year. however, today all of the evidence points to Libya as the culprit for that terrorist attack, which if true would suggest that iran never did retaliate for its loss. Nor did iran retaliate for america’s opera- tion Praying Mantis, which in 1988 resulted in the sinking of most of iran’s major warships. conse- quently, it is possible that iran would simply choose to play the victim if attacked by the United states, assuming (probably correctly) that this would win the clerical regime considerable sympathy both do- mestically and internationally.
however, it is at least equally likely that iran would shoot back as best it could. as noted above, iran may attempt to shut down the strait of hor- muz in response, but this seems unlikely. Doing so would threaten the international oil market and so lose iran whatever international sympathy it might have gained for being the victim of an american attack. of greater importance, ameri- can air and naval capabilities are so overwhelm- ing that it would simply be a matter of time before the U.s. military could wipe out its iranian coun- terparts and reopen the strait. e result would simply add insult to injury for tehran. especially given that under these circumstances, american naval and air forces available in the Persian Gulf will be vastly more powerful than is normally the case, such a move by the iranians would appear to be playing right into Washington’s hands.
it seems far more likely that tehran might choose to respond in kind (roughly) by lobbing
ballistic missiles at U.s. bases, oil facilities, and other high-value targets located in the Gulf states, israel, or other U.s. ally states. is contingency would merit deploying considerable antiballistic missile defense assets in the region and providing as much warning to U.s. allies as possible. how- ever, because many iranian leaders would likely be looking to emerge from the ghting in as ad- vantageous a strategic position as possible, and because they would likely calculate that playing the victim would be their best route to that goal, they might well refrain from such retaliatory mis- sile attacks.
e most likely method of iranian retaliation would be some form of terrorist attack. it could be immediate and coincident with the U.s. air campaign. as noted in the previous chapter, iran is believed to have extensive contingency plans for attacks on american targets, and it might be possible for tehran to execute some of these op- erations in a matter of days. such retaliation also could come well a er the fact. in particular, if tehran wanted to retaliate in spectacular fashion, especially by conducting attacks on american soil to reciprocate for the american attacks on iranian soil, it would likely take months to arrange. Major terrorist operations require extensive planning and preparatory work, and they are especially dif- cult to execute in the United states ever since the security improvements that followed 9/11. consequently, an indivisible part of the airstrikes option would be to take a wide range of steps to harden U.s. targets against the possibility of ira- nian retaliation by terrorist attack—steps that would have to be maintained for many months therea er.
Follow-Up or Follow-on?
e last piece of this policy option is the question of what follows the airstrikes. it is hard to imagine that even a couple of weeks of american airstrikes, encompassing thousands of sorties, would simply
end the problem of the iranian nuclear program forever. it is highly likely that, at least initially, the iranian population would rally around the hard- est of the hard-liners in their government—those people most antagonistic to the United states—in response to what iranians would inevitably see as an unprovoked and unjusti ed act of aggression, no matter what preceded the american strikes. ose leaders, riding a crest of support for them and fury at the United states, would almost certainly insist that iran begin to rebuild its nuclear program, if only out of sheer de ance of the United states. of course, they would have a very powerful new argu- ment to employ: the United states would not dare to attack us in such a fashion if we actually had a nuclear weapon. ey might use the attacks to jus- tify pulling iran out of the Non-Proliferation treaty, thereby eliminating the ability of international arms control experts to monitor iran’s nuclear facilities and provide much-needed information about the status, location, and progress of iran’s program.
if the United states were to adopt the airstrikes option, it would have to anticipate that the ini- tial round of airstrikes would not eliminate the problem altogether, and so the policy would have to include a series of next steps to cover the long term. as already noted, some proponents of the airstrikes option argue that the right long-term approach is simply repeated airstrikes: every time the iranians begin to rebuild their nuclear pro- gram, strike again to knock it down. ey argue that, if nothing else, this would simply keep push- ing the operational date of an iranian nuclear weapon farther and farther into the future. at best, repeated airstrikes might eventually con- vince the iranian people that their leaders’ poli- cies were bringing ruin on their country, and so they would overthrow the regime.
other proponents suggest that the initial round of airstrikes (and possibly a follow-on round) would be intended simply to buy time for other options, particularly regime change. still others, who tend
to be leery of the military option against iran, have suggested that the airstrikes option would only make sense if the United states could en- sure that a tight new containment regime could be imposed immediately a erward to hinder iran’s ability to reconstitute its nuclear program or to retaliate, and thereby avoid the need for additional american military strikes. in short, these approaches do not consider airstrikes as a stand-alone option but rather as one element in a more complex strategy, a topic explored at greater length in the conclusion to this volume.
in many ways, the military requirements of the airstrikes option are the least taxing and probably the easiest for the United states to satisfy (which is partly why this option is appealing to many people). america’s massive air and naval forces are more than adequate to handle the military aspects of this option and are so able to accomplish the missions that there would be multiple ways in which they could do so. is creates considerable exibility in the military leg of this policy stool. it means that the military component can, and probably would have to be, tailored to suit the diplomatic and po- litical requirements, which would likely prove to be far more limiting. But, as described in some detail above, whatever the diplomatic and political cir- cumstances, the U.s. military would undoubtedly be able to generate the forces necessary.
instead, in the military realm, a key concern would be whether any of iran’s neighbors would be willing to allow U.s. aircra to use their air bases. if not, then the United states would have to rely far more heavily on aircra carriers, which in turn raises the potential trade-o between sur- prise and mass. at trade-o is intimately in- tertwined with the list of targets that the United states would seek to hit: the longer that list, the
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more planes and cruise missiles would be needed. similarly, if the president did not believe that he could sustain this campaign politically and diplo- matically for very long, the military would have to adjust the ambitions of the operations.
e United states would have two overriding dip- lomatic objectives should it decide to conduct air- strikes against iran. in an immediate sense, it would need to generate as much support for the attacks as possible, especially among iran’s neighbors, in hopes of securing the use of their air elds to base american jets. as noted above, the availability of these bases is a very important consideration for many key military aspects of the airstrikes, such as their size, duration, and ability to achieve surprise.
in a broader and ultimately more important sense, U.s. diplomacy would have to ensure that the air campaign against iran does not derail ev- ery other american policy initiative in the region. When considering this option, it is critical to keep in mind that the policy’s ultimate objective is to obliterate the iranian nuclear program in the ex- pectation that doing so would greatly limit iran’s ability to hamper other american policy initia- tives in the region, such as a new israeli-Pales- tinian peace process, a drawdown from iraq that does not jeopardize its political progress, improv- ing the situation in afghanistan, and so on.
a critical challenge for this policy option is that, absent a clear iranian act of aggression, american airstrikes against iran would be unpopular in the region and throughout the world. is negative reaction could undermine any or all of amer- ica’s policy initiatives in the region regardless of how the iranians respond. e vast majority of countries whose partnership is necessary to ad- vance these other policies, including those that dislike or even fear iran, do not want to see amer- ican military operations against iran out of dislike
for unilateral american military operations and/ or fear of the repercussions in the region. us Washington cannot allow airstrikes against iran to become a self-defeating course of action that undermines the other U.s. policies that this op- tion is ultimately meant to enable.
especially in the absence of a clear iranian provo- cation, averting this paradoxical danger would be a major task for U.s. diplomats in the run-up to such an air campaign. ey would have to make the case that iran’s continued refusal to accede to the will of the international community to halt its nuclear enrichment activities (as stipulated in multiple security council resolutions enacted under chapter Vii of the UN charter) threat- ened the security of the Middle east and jeopar- dized the global non-proliferation regime. ey would have to persuade these governments that the United states had reasonably tried all of the alternative approaches and none had succeeded. ey would have to argue that the american ac- tions were ultimately designed to enhance the sta- bility of the region and that it would be a mistake for everyone if countries allowed their pique at Washington to impede other initiatives that are ultimately in the best interests of the entire region and the entire world.
e truth is that these all would be challenging cas- es to make. For that reason, it would be far more preferable if the United states could cite an iranian provocation as justi cation for the airstrikes before launching them. clearly, the more outrageous, the more deadly, and the more unprovoked the iranian action, the better o the United states would be. of course, it would be very di cult for the United states to goad iran into such a provocation with- out the rest of the world recognizing this game, which would then undermine it. (one method that would have some possibility of success would be to ratchet up covert regime change e orts in the hope that tehran would retaliate overtly, or even semi-overtly, which could then be portrayed as an
unprovoked act of iranian aggression.) is sug- gests that this option might bene t from being held in abeyance until such time as the iranians made an appropriately provocative move, as they do from time to time. in that case, it would be less a determined policy to employ airstrikes and instead more of an opportunistic hope that iran would provide the United states with the kind of provocation that would justify airstrikes. however, that would mean that the use of airstrikes could not be the primary U.s. policy toward iran (even if it were Washington’s fervent preference), but merely an ancillary contingency to another option that would be the primary policy unless and until iran provided the necessary pretext.
a nal complication for the diplomatic require- ments of the airstrikes option lies in the tension between mounting an e ective diplomatic cam- paign that secured permission for the U.s. military to use local bases, and the desire to achieve sur- prise. any e ort to garner international support for an air attack would eliminate the possibility of gaining strategic surprise for the operation be- cause the iranians would inevitably get wind of the american diplomatic exertions. in these circum- stances, the best that the United states might hope for would be tactical surprise in that the iranians might still be kept from knowing the timing and speci c conduct of the operation. is too would be another trade-o that the president would have to decide in moving forward this option, hopefully gauging the likelihood of getting access to region- al bases (and their importance to the operation) against the utility of achieving surprise.
it is worth repeating that this policy does not yet have any meaningful legal justi cation. in particular, UN security council resolutions spec- ify that they do not authorize member states to use force to bring iran into compliance with the resolutions’ demands. is absence is important
because, by law, american military actions must have such a legal basis. While it is certainly the case that various presidents have provided only the imsiest legal justi cations for military action, other administrations have taken this requirement very seriously. since most americans undoubtedly hope that their leaders will take this requirement seriously, and since the new obama administra- tion has suggested that it will treat such require- ments as obligations, not formalities, the absence of such a legal basis could prove to be an impedi- ment to adoption of this option. Moreover, having a strong legal justi cation would help greatly with the diplomatic task of securing support for an air campaign while not letting it derail every other american policy initiative in the Middle east.
Pros and Cons
e following are the advantages and disadvantag- es of the Airstrikes approach.
From a military perspective, the op- tion is well within american capabilities. airstrikes would likely do considerable damage to important parts of the iranian nuclear program. in particular, the Bush- ehr (and arak) plutonium complexes, the esfahan uranium production facility, and many of the research centers could be to- tally annihilated because they are “so ” tar- gets without reinforcement, camou age, or other protection. in the case of arak and Bushehr, there would be scant prospect of iran being able to rebuild such facilities at the same sites or elsewhere to replace them. Given the huge size and enormous cooling requirements of modern nuclear power plants, it is virtually impossible to build them underground or otherwise hide them from modern reconnaissance meth- ods. even the hardened targets, like those at
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Natanz and Parchin, would likely be de- stroyed if the United states made enough of an e ort. at a minimum, they would be severely compromised, with operations set back several years. Moreover, during the course of the operation, iranian actions might tip o U.s. intelligence to the exis- tence of other, hitherto unknown facilities that could also be found, struck, and de- stroyed as well.
american casualties during the operation itself would probably be minimal. iran’s air defense network, while improved, is no match for the U.s. military’s ability to neutralize it. some aircra and pilot losses would have to be expected, including doz- ens of fatalities, based on the experience of casualties during Desert storm and other recent air campaigns. But the total toll from even an extended operation would prob- ably be less than the monthly toll of ameri- cans dying from iranian-made weaponry at the peak of the iraq War in 2005-2007.
ere would certainly be collateral damage in the form of iranian civilian deaths, but it is unlikely that huge numbers would be killed. in particular, strikes against iran’s facilities at this time would not produce large amounts of radioactive fallout, and many of the targets to be struck are located outside heavily populated areas.
e operation itself is not dependent on external support. even without the use of regional allies’ air elds, one to three amer- ican aircra carriers, bombers from Diego Garcia, and cruise missiles from ships and submarines in the region could be enough to execute a successful attack.
ere is some chance (albeit not high) that the airstrikes option could delay iran’s
nuclear program by as much as ve to sev- en years, which might be long enough that tehran’s most virulent hard-liners would never come into possession of a nuclear weapon. ere is even the possibility that several iranian political cycles might pass before even a determined leadership could create a more dispersed, hidden, durable nuclear capability and thereby nally attain a nuclear weapon.
even if iranian politics did not moder- ate signi cantly during that same period of time, the setback could buy the rest of the region the time and opportunity to make progress in other ways—such as fur- ther steps toward arab-israeli peace and a strengthening of currently weak democrat- ic governments in Lebanon, afghanistan, and iraq. if iran were to acquire nuclear weapons only a er such positive develop- ments, it probably would have greater dif- culty stoking trouble in the region.
By attacking iran’s nuclear facilities but sparing its conventional military and its economy, the United states would retain a measure of “intrawar deterrence” to limit iranian retaliation. in other words, leaving aside the invasion option, it would have the ability to attack additional iranian targets in retaliation to any excessive iranian re- sponse in the region or the world at large, or to blockade iranian oil shipments.
iran’s determination to acquire a nuclear weapons capability would probably not be reduced by such an attack and, especially in the short term, could well be increased.
e hard-line iranian leadership that pres- ently struggles to maintain political support
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at home might be strengthened by a nation- alistic reaction among the iranian people against what they would doubtless perceive as an unprovoked american attack.
even massive airstrikes might only set back the iranian nuclear program by as little as a year or two, and this seems more likely than the more optimistic possibility that this policy option would delay iran’s pro- gram by three years or more. Given the track record of U.s. and international intel- ligence in accurately assessing the nuclear programs of foreign states, any attack, even a sustained american operation, might fail to destroy a substantial fraction of iran’s nuclear program. e United states can- not strike what it does not know about, and there is good reason to think that iran has or will soon have major nuclear facilities— including alternative uranium hexa uoride storage/production and uranium enrich- ment plants—that have not been identi ed.
hizballah, widely considered the most pro- cient international terrorist organization, could take o the gloves in responding to any such attack. even the possibility of a 9/11-type response cannot be dismissed given iran’s demonstrated capabilities in this arena.
any U.s. pilots shot down and captured in the course of their bombing runs could su er a signi cantly worse fate than the american hostages taken in tehran at the time of the revolution three decades ago.
tehran could resort to economic warfare. an iranian attempt to close the strait of hormuz to oil tra c—or at least to compli- cate passage of oil tankers through it, driv- ing up the global price of oil in the process— would not be out of the question (even if it
probably would not last long and would leave iran worse o than before). For revo- lutionaries in its leadership who had just su ered the indignity of seeing their nucle- ar complex destroyed, the corresponding risk to their own country’s economy might seem worth the bene ts. in other words, cutting o their collective noses to spite their face is not out of the question.
tehran might escalate its involvement in iraq and afghanistan, perhaps shipping advanced surface-to-air missiles and ad- vanced antiarmor weapons, such as those it has provided hizballah but has so far re- frained from providing iraqi and afghan insurgents.
in response to the airstrikes option, iran’s politics could become even more radi- cal rather than less so. if such an extrem- ist government were to come into posses- sion of a nuclear weapon, it might be even more inclined than the current regime to prove its revolutionary mettle by attacking its neighbors overtly or covertly, stepping up involvement in Lebanon’s politics, esca- lating support for anti-israeli terrorists, or even trying to draw israel into a shooting war.
over the long term, it would be di cult to sustain a strategy of repeated air cam- paigns to prevent iran from reconstituting its nuclear program. Doing so could dra- matically undercut Washington’s ability to pursue its other objectives in the Middle east—which ultimately constitute one of the rationales behind preventing iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capabil- ity. Washington may be hard pressed in its ability to push for the range of other for- eign policy initiatives it hopes to pursue in the Middle east (a new arab-israeli peace
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process, and democratization of Lebanon, the stabilization of iraq and afghanistan, and even ending the genocide in Dar- fur)—which a new iran policy was speci - cally meant to enable, not preclude. if this is the case, then the policy option would have proven self-defeating.
an air campaign against iran could bad- ly undermine U.s. e orts to employ any other strategy in dealing with tehran. airstrikes against iran could prove so
unpopular around the globe—especially if the United states cannot point to some egregious iranian action as a provoca- tion—that it may be far harder for the United states to galvanize international support for additional sanctions against iran, let alone a full-scale containment regime. and having launched what irani- ans would inevitably consider an unpro- voked act of aggression, the prospect of engagement of any kind with iran in the a ermath would appear unlikely.
88 WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
LeaVe it to BiBi
allowing or encouraging an israeli Military strike
For the United states, the islamic republic of iran has been an enemy for 30 years, one that has sought to thwart U.s. policies in the Middle east, such as advancing the arab-israeli peace process and creating stable regional security ar- rangements. crisis a er crisis has arisen between iran and the United states but iran has never been and almost certainly never will be an existential threat to the United states. it harbors no territo- rial designs on the United states, has never con- ducted a terrorist operation aimed at the ameri- can homeland, and, even should it acquire nuclear weapons, lacks the delivery systems to threaten the United states directly. Further, its economy is anemic, and even if substantially reformed, will probably never provide the base for iran to make itself a challenger to the United states on par with Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, the soviet Union, or communist china.
But for israel, iran is a much more dangerous opponent—it is close and threatening. ere is a virtual consensus in israel that iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. From le to right across the political spectrum, a great many israelis see a threat to their very survival from a
nuclear iran. Former Prime Minister ehud ol- mert said, “israel will not tolerate a nuclear weap- on in the hands of people who say openly, explic- itly and publicly that they want to wipe israel o the map.”36 in his rst speech to the Knesset af- ter being sworn in as prime minister, Binyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu said, “We cannot a ord to take lightly megalomaniac tyrants who threaten to annihilate us.”37 other israeli leaders are more reasoned but also are determined to prevent ira- nian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability. ephraim sneh, former deputy defense minister and a much-decorated retired general of the isra- el Defense Forces (iDF), notes that “the most sa- lient strategic threat to israel’s existence is iran.”38 ese leaders fear that israel’s strategic room for maneuver in the region would be constrained by an iranian nuclear deterrent. e success of irani- an-backed terrorist groups, hizballah in Lebanon and hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, in the last few years has only added to israel’s concern.
even relatively dovish analysts like the historian Benny Morris write about an iranian bomb in apocalyptic terms: “ e iranians are driven by a higher logic. and they will launch their rockets.
36 Lally Weymouth, “a conversation
with ehud olmert,” Washington Post, May 11, 2008, p. B3.
37 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the Knesset swearing in ceremony, March 31, 2009, available at <http://www.pmo.gov.il/
38 ephraim sneh, Navigating Perilous Waters: An Israeli Strategy for Peace and Security (London: curzon, 2005), p. 55.
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and, as with the rst holocaust, the international community will do nothing. it will all be over, for israel, in a few minutes—not like in the 1940s, when the world had ve long years in which to wring its hands and do nothing.”39
only a few israeli commentators have suggested the threat may be exaggerated or that it actually serves israeli interests to have a threat from iran. Former Mossad chief ephraim halevy argues that “ahmadinejad is our greatest gi . We couldn’t carry out a better operation in the Mossad than to put a guy like ahmadinejad in power in iran.”40 But even halevy believes iran is a serious threat to israel’s interests.
it is clear from discussions with israeli military and intelligence o cials, and from numerous press leaks and reports that israel is well under way in planning for a military operation to pre- vent iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. is- rael’s defense minister, ehud Barak, said in 2007 that “the things that we do behind the scenes, far from the public eye, are far more important than the slogan charade,” implying that israeli covert capabilities are already hard at work trying to cope with the iranian threat and preparing to attack it if they must.41 it is impossible to know what those plans entail in detail without access to the iDF’s secret planning, but israelis say the mission is “not impossible.” e iDF’s september 6, 2007 attack on the syrian nuclear facility at Dayr az-Zawr is widely believed in israel to have been in part a message to tehran that iran may be next.
israeli leaders have been warning about the ira- nian threat since the early 1990s. Prime Minister
Yitzhak rabin highlighted the danger iran posed to israel in his rst visit to the United states in 1992 a er his election. israeli intelligence opera- tions against iran were stepped up even earlier and have included use of third parties to publicize the iranian threat without revealing the israeli hand. iran’s secret enrichment and heavy-water reactor programs were publicly exposed in august 2002 by an iranian dissident group (the Mujahedin-e Khalq), which reportedly was unwittingly fed the information by israeli intelligence.42
in short, there is considerable reason to believe that under the right (or wrong) set of circum- stances, israel would launch an attack—principal- ly airstrikes, but possibly backed by special forces operations—to destroy iran’s nuclear program. is could create either an opportunity for or a threat to american interests with regard to iran and the broader Middle east. it could constitute an opportunity, and thus a possible policy option, if the United states would like to see iran’s nuclear program destroyed but prefers not to do it itself. it could be a threat if the United states believes that an israeli attack would destabilize the region and would not advance (or would harm) ameri- can interests in relation to iran.
Not surprisingly, some americans have ex- pressed the hope that israel would strike iran— that Jerusalem would have the “guts” to do what Washington does not. other americans regard the prospect with horror, believing that an is- raeli attack would have all the disadvantages of american airstrikes (as well as some unique ones) and none of their advantages. ameri- can decisionmakers need to have a clear sense of what such an israeli operation would look
39 Quoted in David remnick, “Blood and sand,” New Yorker, May 5, 2008, p. 76.
40 Quoted in “ex-Mossad chief: ahmadinejad is israel’s Greatest Gi ,” Haaretz, august 20, 2008.
41 shahar ilan, “Defense Min. to Knesset Panel: talks Won’t Make iran Nukes Go away,” Haaretz, November 6, 2007.
42 at the iranian dissidents got the information from israeli intelligence, who fed it to them via a cutout, is according to former iDF chief of
sta Moshe Ya’alon. see adrian Levy and catherine scott-clark, Deception (New York: atlantic, 2007), p. 525.
like, as well as the pros and cons for the United states, to decide whether to try to encourage or discourage it.43
as in the case of american airstrikes against iran, the goal of this policy option would be to destroy key iranian nuclear facilities in the hope that do- ing so would signi cantly delay iran’s acquisition of an indigenous nuclear weapons capability. however, in this case, an added element could be that the United states would encourage—and perhaps even assist—the israelis in conducting the strikes themselves, in the expectation that both international criticism and iranian retali- ation would be de ected away from the United states and onto israel. e logic behind this ap- proach is that allowing israel to mount the air- strikes, rather than the United states, provides a way out of the dilemma described in the previ- ous chapter, whereby american airstrikes against iran could become self-defeating because they would undermine every other american initia- tive in the Middle east, an outcome exactly the opposite of what a new iran policy is meant to accomplish.
as with american airstrikes against the iranian nuclear program, this option would not entail any direct e ort to deal with iran’s support for terror- ists and radical groups, nor would it directly seek to mitigate other iranian e orts to subvert the sta- tus quo in the Middle east. at most, this policy assumes that iran’s ability to pursue such activi- ties would be greatly enhanced by possession of a (presumed) nuclear weapons capability, and therefore that removing this threat would help limit iran’s ability to cause problems for the Unit- ed states in the region. Likewise, this approach
makes no e ort to change the iranian regime or otherwise reshape its character.
if the United states decided to encourage israel to mount airstrikes against iran, the entire operation could happen very quickly, probably much faster than a similar american campaign. israel appears to have done extensive planning and practice for such a strike already, and its aircra are probably already based as close to iran as possible. as such, israel might be able to launch the strike in a matter of weeks or even days, depending on what weather and intelligence conditions it felt it needed. More- over, since israel would have much less of a need (or even interest) in securing regional support for the operation, Jerusalem probably would feel less motivated to wait for an iranian provocation before attacking. in short, israel could move very fast to implement this option if both israeli and american leaders wanted it to happen.
however, as noted in the previous chapter, the airstrikes themselves are really just the start of this policy. again, the iranians would doubtless rebuild their nuclear sites. ey would probably retaliate against israel, and they might retaliate against the United states, too (which might cre- ate a pretext for american airstrikes or even an invasion). and it seems unlikely that they would cease their support for violent extremist groups or e orts to overturn the regional status quo in the a ermath of israeli airstrikes. eir opposi- tion to an arab-israeli peace treaty would likely be redoubled. hence the United states would still need a strategy to handle iran a er comple- tion of the israeli airstrikes, and this could mean a much longer time frame to achieve all of amer- ica’s goals.
43 We note that the George W. Bush administration reportedly dissuaded israel from mounting such a strike in 2008, suggesting that it had concluded that such an operation would be unhelpful to american interests and policies in the region.
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overview of the Policy
an israeli air campaign against iran would have a number of very important di erences from an american campaign. First, the israeli air Force (iaF) has the problem of over ight transit from israel to iran. israel has no aircra carriers, so its planes must take o from israeli air bases. it also does not possess long-range bombers like the B-1 or B-2, or huge eets of refueling tankers, all of which means that unlike the United states, israel cannot avoid ying through someone’s air space. e most direct route from israel to iran’s Natanz facility is roughly 1,750 kilometers across Jordan and iraq. as the occupying power in iraq, the United states is responsible for defending iraqi airspace. e alternatives via turkish airspace (over 2,200 kilometers) or saudi airspace (over 2,400 kilometers) would also put the attack force into the skies of U.s. allies equipped with amer- ican-supplied air defenses and ghter aircra . in the case of turkey, an israeli over ight would be further complicated by the fact that turkey is a Nato ally that the United states has a commit- ment to defend, and it hosts a large, joint turkish- american airbase along the most likely route of attack.
For political and military reasons, israel’s need to over y turkish, iraqi-Jordanian, or saudi air- space creates two problems. First, an israeli strike must achieve surprise so that israeli planes are not intercepted by the air defenses and ghters of those countries. second, in part based on reason number one, the israelis would get basically one shot at iran. on the rst pass, they likely would surprise any of those countries and be able to reach iran and return before the turks, saudis, or Jordanians could activate their air defenses; but
a second wave would meet alerted air defenses, creating military and political problems that is- rael would likely nd insurmountable. an initial israeli attack across iraqi territory would severely complicate the U.s. military presence there; a re- peat performance would likely compromise it altogether. us, a er the rst round of strikes, israel would have nothing but its small eet of ballistic missiles and submarine-launched cruise missiles for follow-on attacks, and because the ballistic missiles are such valuable assets, Jerusa- lem would not likely squander them on anything but the highest value iranian targets.
another problem israel faces is distance. e iaF possesses 25 F-15i long-range strike air- cra , which have a combat radius of over 2,500 kilometers, giving them the range to hit ira- nian targets even if they have to y via turkey or saudi arabia. however, 25 aircra is a tiny number given the size, dispersal, and hardening of the iranian nuclear program, especially since the planes could not carry much ordnance, nor would they have the ability to hit multiple facili- ties on a single sortie at that distance. so israel’s F-15i eet alone could not hope to do as much damage to the iranian nuclear program as even the small-scale american airstrike discussed in the previous chapter.44 us just employing the 25 F-15is probably would not make the opera- tion worthwhile from Jerusalem’s or Washing- ton’s perspective.
in addition to the F-15is, israel has acquired 100 F- 16i ghter bombers. ere is a great deal of specu- lation regarding the combat range of the F-16i, which most sources suggest is roughly 1,600-1,800 kilometers. however, at least one well-regarded is- raeli source has stated that it has a range of 2,100
44 israel has three submarines (and is acquiring two more) that could also launch a small number of cruise missiles (american harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles) against iranian targets. once again, the numbers that israel could launch would be dwarfed by the numbers of (larger and longer range) cruise missiles that the United states could be expected to employ in even a limited air campaign against the iranian nuclear program.
kilometers.45 even if the longer distance is possible, this means that the F-16is only have the range to strike iran unrefueled if they y the shortest route across Jordan and iraq—which is also the most po- litically problematic because it clearly incriminates the United states as israel’s witting accomplice in the strike. From the american perspective, this negates the whole point of the option—distancing the United states from culpability—and it could jeopardize american e orts in iraq, thus making it a possible nonstarter for Washington. Finally, israeli violation of Jordanian airspace would likely create political problems for King abdullah of Jor- dan, one of america’s (and israel’s) closest arab friends in the region. us it is exceedingly un- likely that the United states would allow israel to over y iraq, and because of the problems it would create for Washington and amman, it is unlikely that israel would try to y over Jordan.
consequently, in most scenarios, for israel to mount an airstrike of any size against iran—as- suming that israel cannot secretly refuel its aircra at an air base near iran—it would have to provide in- ight refueling to enable the F-16is to partici- pate. is is a further complication because while it is possible for ghter aircra to refuel one an- other, doing so immediately halves the number of planes actually dropping bombs (the other half are doing the refueling and so carry fuel, not weap- ons). in addition, since “buddy refueling” by other ghter bombers is ine cient, it may take multiple refuelings—meaning that out of 100 F-16is com- mitted, perhaps only 25 might be able to make it to the targets in iran. e alternative is the more traditional method of using large tanker aircra to provide the fuel, but these are extremely vulner- able. Because of this and given the remarkable capabilities demonstrated by the iaF over the
years, the possibility that israel would nd ways to “hide” tankers in international air space or y them with the strike packages for much of the way until their services are no longer needed should not be ruled out. however, such risky operations would only be feasible for the rst round of strikes. once the surprise is over and the iranians, turks, Jordanians, and/or saudis have their air defenses on alert, the tankers would be highly vulnerable.
What all of this means is that, realistically, an is- raeli strike against iran could consist of no more than 125 israeli F-15i and F-16i sorties (with limited weapons loads because of the distance), backed by a small number of cruise missile shots. is is not a meaningless force, and it likely could do a considerable amount of damage to the best known of iran’s facilities. But again, it probably could not do as much damage as even the lim- ited american airstrikes option discussed in the previous chapter—it probably would not even be able to cover all the targets listed. Moreover, the iaF would have virtually no capability to conduct opportunity strikes on targets revealed by iranian actions during the attacks themselves. Nor would it have much, if any, ability to follow up with re- peat strikes to hit facilities where the initial at- tack failed to destroy the target. overall, an israeli strike would be even less likely to meaningfully set back the iranian nuclear program than would an american air campaign.46
an Israeli attack on Iran versus U.S. Interests
an israeli attack on iran would directly a ect key american strategic interests. if israel were to over y iraq, both the iranians and the vast major- ity of people around the world would see the strike
45 e Ja ee center for strategic studies of tel aviv University has claimed this range in its annual volume, e Middle East Military Balance, 2003-2004.
46 some israeli intelligence o cials suspect it would only delay iran’s nuclear program by a year. see ““ahmadinejad is israel’s Greatest Gi .”
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as abetted, if not authorized, by the United states. even if israel were to use another route, many ira- nians would still see the attack as american sup- ported or even american orchestrated. a er all, the aircra in any strike would be american pro- duced, supplied, and funded F-15s and F-16s, and much of the ordnance would be american made. in fact, $3 billion dollars in U.s. assistance annu- ally sustains the iDF’s conventional superiority in the region.
iran would almost certainly retaliate against israel and may choose to retaliate against the United states as well. to demonstrate its retalia- tory prowess, iran has already red salvos of test missiles (some of which are capable of striking is- rael), and iranian leaders have warned that they would respond to an attack by either israel or the United states with attacks against tel aviv, U.s. ships and facilities in the Persian Gulf, and other targets. if iran wanted to retaliate in less risky ways, it could respond indirectly by encouraging hizballah attacks against israel and shi’i militia attacks against U.s. forces in iraq. Fears of a wider Middle eastern war could play havoc with the oil market, at least in the short term, and probably would not help american initiatives to stabilize iraq, resolve the arab-israeli con ict, or foster an independent democracy in Lebanon. Further, iran would be able to argue that it was the victim of aggression and might renounce its Non-Pro- liferation treaty commitments. and since even a successful israeli raid would only delay iran’s nuclear program—and probably by even less than a small-scale american strike—the United states would still have to have a strategy to deal with the basic problem a er an israeli attack, but in an even more complicated diplomatic context.
e israelis are well aware of the risks and down- sides of an attack on iran’s nuclear facilities, es- pecially the possible cost in american lives if tehran retaliates against the United states. Given these risks, Jerusalem may focus on strengthening
sanctions in the near term, but the israelis may feel compelled to act if they judge that the current ad- ministration’s diplomatic push has failed. israeli commentators note that the chances of securing russian support for tough sanctions have dimin- ished considerably since the 2008 war in Georgia. russia has a stronger interest in keeping good ties with iran, another power in the caucasus, and less interest in appeasing american and european concerns about iran. since israel is a strong sup- porter of Georgia, russia may also feel it should pay israel back by moving closer to tehran.
U.S. options and Decision Points
Given the stakes for the United states, the presi- dent should make a decision about a potential israeli military attack against iranian nuclear fa- cilities. ere are four options. e rst option is for the United states to give israel a “green light,” permitting israel to transit american-controlled airspace over iraq. in this case, the United states would coordinate with israel beforehand on how to manage the consequences of an attack, includ- ing iranian retaliation and the regional and inter- national political fallout. e option’s principal virtue is that if israel e ects a military solution to the iranian nuclear threat, the United states would bene t from the attack without taking the risks of using its own forces.
e downsides are more numerous simply because no one, least of all iran, would believe the United states had nothing to do with an israeli attack, es- pecially if the United states allowed israel to y over iraq. as discussed above, one of the most signi cant consequences of the “green light” sce- nario could be iranian retaliation against ameri- can targets, which could then lead to a broader con ict between the United states and iran. Un- less the United states is prepared to take draco- nian measures immediately a erward to distance itself from israel, such as a complete cuto of all military assistance and economic aid, tehran
may well blame Washington as much as Jerusa- lem for the air attack on its territory. however, for the United states to attempt to distance itself from israel under these circumstances would, of course, amount to a betrayal of the israelis, since Washington’s “green light” would have encour- aged them to undertake the attack. in addition, in the a ermath of the approach that allows israel use of iraqi airspace, it would be more di cult for the United states to argue that iran should still abide by its Non-Proliferation treaty obligations. e United states would have been party to the operation in spirit, if not in fact, and thus have little credibility in trying to persuade iran that it should not embark on a crash attempt to build a nuclear weapon.
e second option is for the United states to give israel a “yellow light,” encouraging israel to mount the attack, but not permit it to use iraqi airspace. e virtues of this scenario would be the same as with the “green light,” with the added bene t that the diplomatic fallout for the United states might be mitigated since it could claim it had no advance warning, or that it did and even tried to prevent the attack by closing o iraq’s air- space. e drawback to this option is that many, especially iran, might still believe that the United states was complicit in the operation, thus mak- ing U.s. troops in the region vulnerable to retalia- tory strikes by iran.
a third option would be for the United states to give israel a “red light,” actively discouraging an israeli attack, either because Washington had de- cided that it could carry out the attack more e ec- tively and with fewer political complications on its own, or because it determines that the likely costs of a military attack by either the United states or israel outweigh the potential bene ts. e ratio- nale for saying no will determine the pluses and minuses of the red light option. if Washington discourages an israeli attack because it plans to execute its own invasion or airstrikes, then this
approach would accrue all of the bene ts and lia- bilities associated with those options (as discussed in the previous two chapters). if Washington de- cides not to launch a military operation and, for the same reasons, decides that it would be as bad or worse for israel to do so, then the United states avoids the risk of iranian retaliation and the dip- lomatic liabilities of an attack. e downsides of this rationale for saying no include a di cult ar- gument with israel over the issue, perhaps played out in the public domain, which could bene t iran by giving it a propaganda coup against israel. in addition, israel could very well carry out the op- eration even if Washington signaled a “red light,” in which case U.s. forces in the region could be in harm’s way from iranian retaliation without Washington having had the bene t of knowing the time and scope of the israeli attack.
a fourth option is for the president to avoid mak- ing a clear decision—giving no light—which could lead to an israeli attack without any ameri- can input. in other words, doing nothing could amount to a decision to let israel go forward on its own. e outcome of this would be essentially the same as any of the previous options but with addi- tional downsides. e reason for this is that if is- rael chose to y over iraqi airspace, the president would have to decide whether to order the planes intercepted and turned back or look the other way and allow the planes to proceed. intercepting the israeli planes would be akin to a “red light” deci- sion, but worse. israel, and many of its support- ers in the United states, would react bitterly, and there is the possibility of israeli and american planes even shooting at each other. e alterna- tive decision, allowing the planes to proceed over iraq’s airspace, would be akin to the “green light” option, but worse in that the United states would have had no advanced warning of the strike. as such, american forces in the region would have little time to prepare for a possible iranian coun- terstrike. Finally, should israel decide to proceed with the attack on its own without over ying iraqi
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airspace, the consequences would be the same as the “yellow light” scenario, but worse in that the United states would have had no warning of the timing and scope of the attack.
in one sense, the requirements of the israeli air- strike option are minimal. if the United states concludes that this option is worth pursuing, it merely requires a high-level conversation between Washington and Jerusalem. again, the principal virtue of this option is that it would result in air- strikes against the iranian nuclear program and could mitigate the political, diplomatic, and even military burdens on the United states. it may also result in a strike against the iranian nuclear pro- gram much sooner than the United states could be able to do, although the punch might be much weaker than what the United states could deliver.
even in this case, however, the United states is un- likely to get o easily. First, the israelis may want U.s. help with a variety of things. israel may be more willing to bear the risks of iranian retaliation and international opprobrium than the United states is, but it is not invulnerable and may request certain commitments from the United states be- fore it is ready to strike. For instance, the israelis may want to hold o until they have a peace deal with syria in hand (assuming that Jerusalem be- lieves that one is within reach), which would help them mitigate blowback from hizballah and po- tentially hamas. consequently, they might want Washington to push hard in mediating between Jerusalem and Damascus. in addition, the israelis might request additional military equipment— deep-penetrating munitions to make the attack more e ective, more F-15s or F-16s (or F-22s), or the latest defensive systems to help them defend
themselves against iranian retaliation. (and, of course, all of these requests would also greatly ex- tend the time frame for an israeli strike.)
second, as noted earlier, the United states would need to prepare for the possibility of iranian re- taliation as well, especially if the israeli warplanes over ew Jordan and iraq. Washington would have to be ready to make a major counterterrorism ef- fort to protect the U.s. homeland as well as amer- ican diplomatic and military personnel overseas. in both iraq and afghanistan, the United states would need to prepare to withstand a wave of iranian inspired (and armed) attacks against U.s. forces there.
requirements of the red Light option: enhancing Jerusalem’s Security
if the current administration concludes that an is- raeli strike against iran would harm U.s. interests and therefore that Jerusalem must be persuaded not to attack—not just in the immediate future but over the long term as well—then the require- ments for Washington change considerably and, in some ways, become far more involved. ere is precedent for the United states persuading is- rael not to use force against a military threat. in the 1991 Gulf War, President George h.W. Bush pressed Prime Minister Yitzhak shamir not to at- tack iraqi scud missile launchers that were target- ing israel. Most important, Bush refused to give the israelis the iFF (identi cation friend or foe) codes and approval to enter iraqi airspace, thus indicating that israeli aircra would be ying in harm’s way. israel’s preferred option of a limited ground force incursion into western iraq was also rejected. in turn, the United states committed to stepping up its own attacks on iraqi scuds, al- though with little or no e ect.47
47 scott B. Lasensky, “Friendly restraint: U.s.-israel relations during the Gulf War crisis of 1990-1991,” Middle East Review of International A airs, June 1, 1999, available at <www.cfr.org/publication/4870/friendly_restraint.html>.
With regard to iran, the most important element of an american e ort to dissuade israel from launching an attack of its own would be a discus- sion between Washington and Jerusalem on how to ensure that tehran does not threaten israel with nuclear weapons if U.s. diplomatic and mili- tary e orts eventually fail to prevent iran from acquiring them. Ultimately, the United states probably would not be willing or able to prevent an israeli attack against iranian nuclear facili- ties if Jerusalem decides that it could do so suc- cessfully and believes that it has no other choice. however, if israeli leaders are uncertain about the e ectiveness and consequences of a military raid, joint planning with the United states on how to contain and deter a nuclear-armed iran could in- uence their decision. For example, if Jerusalem were con dent that formal U.s. nuclear assuranc- es could be extended to israel, it might be more inclined to calculate that the risks of living with a nuclear-armed iran were more manageable. erefore, in addition to coordinating on day- to-day diplomatic e orts, the U.s. administration should o er to begin a very quiet policy planning exercise with israel to consider options if diplo- macy with iran fails.
speci cally, Washington should take another look at the pluses and minuses of extending an explic- it american nuclear guarantee to israel. at the camp David summit in 2000, israeli Prime Min- ister ehud Barak suggested a U.s.-israeli mutual defense treaty be signed to provide israel with a nuclear guarantee against iran. e idea died when the israeli-Palestinian peace process col- lapsed, but it is worth reconsidering.
of course, israeli capabilities ought to be enough on their own. estimates of the size of israel’s
arsenal by outsiders (israelis are prohibited by law from doing so) suggest it is formidable. e inter- national institute for strategic studies estimated in 2008 that israel has the sixth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, just behind the ve original nuclear powers but ahead of india and Pakistan. e israelis probably have around 100 nuclear devices and can deliver them by aircra (F-15is), surface-to-surface missiles (Jericho), and subma- rine-launched cruise missiles.48
such an arsenal should su ce to deter iran, but an american nuclear guarantee would provide the israelis an extra measure of reassurance. if the United states guarantees israel a nuclear um- brella, then iran would know that no matter what damage it may in ict on israel, the United states would be able to retaliate with overwhelming force. is deterrent is strengthened by the fact that iran would have no delivery system capable of quickly striking back at the U.s. homeland.49 it would be the target of both whatever residual capability israel retained and the vast american nuclear arsenal.
e United states could provide Jerusalem with further reassurance. already the United states has been deeply involved in building israel’s de- fense against an iranian missile strike. For almost two decades, the Pentagon has been working closely with israel to perfect the arrow anti-tac- tical ballistic missile system. e two countries have shared extensive technology for anti-tacti- cal ballistic missile systems, including the inte- gration of israel into the most advanced ameri- can early warning radar systems to provide the earliest possible alert of an incoming attack. is defensive cooperation should be continued and enhanced.
48 see “israel: Nuclear Monopoly in Danger,” in Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran (London: international institute for strategic studies, 2008).
49 iran could always retaliate with a terrorist attack, but this would likely take weeks or months to implement.
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e United states could also look at other ways of bolstering the israel Defense Forces. e F-15i will remain an adequate long-range strike plat- form for the immediate future, but it is worth examining whether to provide the F-22 raptor aircra to the iDF as an even more sophisticated attack system that would be able to ensure israel’s deterrence capability far into the future. Prime Minister Barak raised this issue with President clinton at the camp David summit in 2000, and it should be reconsidered.
Finally, the current administration could try to go one step further and develop a multinational nuclear deterrent for israel by proposing israeli membership in the North atlantic treaty orga- nization. Under article 5 of the Nato treaty, an attack on any member is an attack on the whole. as a Nato member, israel would automatically enjoy the same nuclear umbrella as the existing 26 members. israel is already a member of Nato’s Mediterranean dialogue and participates in limit- ed military exercises with several Nato partners aside from the United states, including notably both Greece and turkey.
Getting israel into Nato would be a very hard sell, however, as many of the european allies be- lieve israel has done too little to bring about peace with its arab neighbors, and they would proba- bly condition support for israeli membership on concrete and public moves toward a nal peace agreement. european public opinion is increas- ingly wary of increasing Nato’s membership, and many would nd israel an unattractive ally that could commit europeans to ghting arabs.
Finally, all the options for expanding israel’s de- terrent through new treaty obligations, either bilateral or via Nato, would face substantial opposition from those in israel who argue such commitments weaken israel’s ability to act unilat- erally. a mutual defense alliance does not require advance agreement before one party uses force,
but it certainly increases the political imperative not to surprise your treaty partner with indepen- dent action.
Pros and Cons
e following are the advantages and disadvantag- es of the Israel approach.
as noted, the most salient advantage this option has over that of an american air campaign is the possibility that israel alone would be blamed for the attack. if this proves true, then the United states might not have to deal with iranian retaliation or the diplomatic backlash that would ac- company an american military operation against iran. it could allow Washington to have its cake (delay iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon) and eat it, too (avoid un- dermining many other U.s. regional diplo- matic initiatives).
israeli forces might be able to execute the attack much sooner and with much less prior notice and preparation than ameri- can military forces could.
it would presumably be easier to convince israel to mount the attack than it would be to generate domestic political support for another war in the Middle east (let alone the diplomatic support from a region that is extremely wary of new american mili- tary adventures). at least some important israelis want to conduct such an attack and would welcome Washington’s encourage- ment. other israelis are less enthusiastic but feel it may be necessary if they believe they have no choice, and they, too, would be far more willing to attack if they believed that the United states was rmly behind it.
an israeli airstrike against iran entails many— potentially all—of the same disadvantages as an american air campaign against iran but has few of its advantages. its one advantage, the possibility that israel would bear the entire burden for the strike, in terms of international opprobrium and iranian retaliation, is highly uncertain and would depend on the circum- stances of the strike and a variety of unpredict- able perceptions. if the United states is seen as ultimately (or jointly) responsible for the
attack, there would be no advantage from the american perspective.
in particular, an israeli military strike would be weaker than even a limited american air cam- paign and so would have a lower likelihood of seriously delaying iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability. us, when assessing the american cost-bene t analysis of this option, the bene t is unquestionably less than it would be if the United states mounted the attack itself, while any reduction in cost would be extremely di cult to assess—and could be marginal or nonexistent.
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For some americans, neither the diplomatic nor the airstrike options o er a persuasive approach to iran. ey have little con dence that the iranians can be persuaded—either with big incentives and disincentives, or with just the big incentives—and fear that airstrikes would fail to disarm iran and instead would further entrench the clerical regime. instead, they believe that only taking action to bring about the fall of the islamic republic can protect america’s vital interests in the Middle east. ese americans see the regime itself, and not merely its behavior, as the real threat to U.s. security. ey believe that the re- gime simply will never live up to any agreements, and even if somehow it did, it would nd other ways to undermine U.s. interests because the regime and the United states are fundamentally incompatible. consequently, americans who fall into this camp tend to dislike both the diplomatic and airstrike options because none of them o er any reasonable prospect of ousting the regime. ey might favor an invasion, but a er iraq and afghanistan, they tend to believe either that the costs are not worth it or that the american people will not go for it. so for them, the only reasonable way to handle iran is to pursue some form of co- vert action intended to bring about the end of the islamic republic.
e clerical regime in iran is brutal and corrupt, and its leaders oppose U.s. interests throughout
the Middle east. us it is not surprising that some americans have examined the regime for cracks that could be widened to bring about its downfall. e surprising ascendance of a reform movement with the 1997 election of Muhammad Khatami made a change in regime seem possible, even imminent: not only did Khatami’s wide- spread support suggest considerable disenchant- ment with the clerical regime, but his election indicated that peaceful means might lead to its replacement under the leadership of a man call- ing for a “dialogue of civilizations.” over ten years later, however, Khatami’s conservative opponents have consolidated power. While many iranians are cynical toward or even hostile to the regime, the reform movement is in disarray.
e reform movement, however, is not the only means for changing the regime, and in theory the United states has several options if it seeks a new iranian government. in the past, the United states engineered a coup to restore a government of its liking there and in recent years, Washing- ton has supported programs designed to bolster a democratic movement in iran. Prominent voices have also called for helping iranian oppositionists overthrow the regime and for using iran’s minor- ity groups to undermine the government.
ere are several ways in which the United states could change the regime or undermine it:
toPPLiNG tehraN regime change
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supporting a popular revolution, stirring up iran’s ethnic groups, or promoting a coup. in practice, these options could be pursued simultaneously and overlap in some of their elements, but it is worth considering each separately to understand their nature and requirements. at is the task of the next three chapters.
the VeLVet reVoLUtioN supporting a Popular Uprising
Because the iranian regime is widely disliked by many iranians, the most obvious and pal- atable method of bringing about its demise would be to help foster a popular revolution along the lines of the “velvet revolutions” that toppled many communist governments in eastern europe be- ginning in 1989. For many proponents of regime change, it seems self-evident that the United states should encourage the iranian people to take pow- er in their own name, and that this would be the most legitimate method of regime change. a er all, what iranian or foreigner could object to help- ing the iranian people ful ll their own desires?
Moreover, iran’s own history would seem to sug- gest that such an event is plausible. During the 1906 constitutional Movement, during the late 1930s, arguably during the 1950s, and again dur- ing the 1978 iranian revolution, coalitions of intellectuals, students, peasants, bazaari mer- chants, Marxists, constitutionalists, and clerics mobilized against an unpopular regime. in both 1906 and 1978, the revolutionaries secured the support of much of the populace and, in so do- ing, prevailed. ere is evidence that the islamic regime has antagonized many (perhaps all) of these same factions to the point where they again might be willing to support a change if they feel that it could succeed. is is the foundational belief of those americans who support regime change, and their hope is that the United states
can provide whatever the iranian people need to believe that another revolution is feasible.
of course, popular revolutions are incredibly complex and rare events. ere is little scholarly consensus on what causes a popular revolution, or even the conditions that facilitate them. even factors o en associated with revolutions, such as military defeat, neglect of the military, economic crises, and splits within the elite have all been reg- ular events across the world and throughout his- tory, but only a very few have resulted in a popu- lar revolution. consequently, all of the literature on how best to promote a popular revolution— in iran or anywhere else—is highly speculative. Nevertheless, it is the one policy option that holds out the prospect that the United states might eliminate all of the problems it faces from iran, do so at a bearable cost, and do so in a manner that is acceptable to the iranian people and most of the rest of the world.
e true objective of this policy option is to over- throw the clerical regime in tehran and see it replaced, hopefully, by one whose views would be more compatible with U.s. interests in the region. e policy does, in its own way, seek a change in iranian behavior, but by eliminating the government that is responsible for that behavior
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without the use of american military forces. in- deed, inherent in this option is the assumption that the current iranian regime is uniquely prob- lematic for the United states—that a successor would not attempt to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, nor seek to overturn the regional status quo by stoking instability. it is worth noting that if a future democratic iranian regime did continue these policies, that might prove more of a prob- lem for the United states than their pursuit by what is clearly an autocratic regime.
While the ultimate goal is to remove the regime, working with the internal opposition also could be a form of coercive pressure on the iranian regime, giving the United states leverage on other issues. iran under the shah, for example, backed a Kurd- ish insurgency in iraq and helped make the rebels quite potent. e shah then abruptly sold out the Kurds in exchange for iraqi concessions on demar- cating the iran-iraq border. in theory, the United states could create coercive leverage by threaten- ing the regime with instability or even overthrow and, a er having done so, use this leverage to force concessions on other issues such as iran’s nuclear program or support for militants in iraq.
is mix of goals can be seen as a spectrum: if the policies achieve relatively limited gains, they can be expanded to try to achieve ambitious results. as scott carpenter, who served as a U.s. deputy assistant secretary of state and focused on de- mocracy promotion, contends, “if the U.s. plays its hand e ectively, we can weaken the tyrant of tehran substantially—and ideally empower his own people to e ect peaceful change.”50
Because popular revolutions are so rare and unpre- dictable, and because the iranian regime vigilantly
guards against any popular revolt, it is impossible to know how long it would take for the United states to promote a revolution in tehran. it may be that, as many proponents contend, the iranian people are desperate to overthrow the regime and the emphatic commitment of the United states to the cause would be su cient to trigger the irani- an people to move against their government. But this claim has been made many times in the past, both about iran and other countries, and has only occasionally proven true. Moreover, even if the people were willing, they may not be able; they may need help organizing and nding leaders, or they may need to wait until the regime su ers some major setback that provides an opportunity to act. in short, it could take years to decades to engineer a popular revolution in iran, and any american administration that adopts this option should do so understanding that it could happen very quickly (in a matter of months), very slowly (in a matter of years or decades), or not at all.
overview of the Policy
Popular revolutions, especially successful popular revolutions, are so complex and uncommon that it is di cult to outline a speci c course of action that would have a high likelihood of sparking one. Many outside observers, however, are nonethe- less optimistic that some form of “people power” could topple the clerical regime. ey point to the following favorable factors:
e regime is unpopular with many irani- ans due to gra and economic mismanage- ment;
e regime’s religious legitimacy has de- clined considerably, and many senior cler- ics now reject the velayat-e faqih system; and
50 J. scott carpenter, “how We can Bring him Down,” New York Daily News, september 24, 2007.
reformers have at times done well in elec- tions, and while the current elected leader- ship is extremely conservative, it won pow- er in part by excluding more liberal rivals from the process and because turnout was o en low. 51
in addition, these observers note that some irani- ans opposed to the clerical regime are pro-amer- ican, and even those who are more skeptical of the United states are not as aggressively hostile as the current clerical regime, which is one of the most anti-american governments in the world. iran is one of the rare Muslim countries where much of the population wants closer ties to the United states, so promoting a democratic change might make more sense there than it would in a country like saudi arabia, where popular hostil- ity to the United states is high. is suggests that at least a few of those willing or desirous of mov- ing against the current regime might look to the United states for support in their e ort.
Beyond this, however, it is o en di cult to be speci c about how a popular revolution might start, let alone be carried through to completion, especially when considered in the context of a fragmented and opaque iranian political system. it could begin with more pragmatic leaders recog- nizing the problems and illegitimacy of the cur- rent system and trying to reform it to the point where the system itself breaks under the weight of the contradictions and tensions that emerge (for example, the process by which Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost led to the collapse of the soviet Union). alternatively, it could take the
form of widespread popular demonstrations and unrest that eventually discredit the government and lead it to exit the scene. Past examples range from the bloody overthrow of the ceausescu government in romania to the more peaceful re- moval of the Marcos regime from power in the Philippines.
e United states could play multiple roles in facil- itating a revolution. By funding and helping orga- nize domestic rivals of the regime, the United states could create an alternative leadership to seize pow- er. as raymond tanter of the iran Policy commit- tee argues, students and other groups “need covert backing for their demonstrations. ey need fax machines. ey need internet access, funds to du- plicate materials, and funds to keep vigilantes from beating them up.”52 Beyond this, U.s.-backed me- dia outlets could highlight regime shortcomings and make otherwise obscure critics more promi- nent. e United states already supports Persian- language satellite television (Voice of america Per- sian) and radio (radio Farda) that bring un ltered news to iranians (in recent years, these have taken the lion’s share of overt U.s. funding for promoting democracy in iran).53 U.s. economic pressure (and perhaps military pressure as well) can discredit the regime, making the population hungry for a rival leadership.
to a limited extent, the congress and the Bush ad- ministration took steps to support regime change by encouraging democracy in iran. Under the iran Freedom support act of 2006 (and subsequent renewals), the United states is authorized to pro- vide nancial and political aid to organizations
51 Velayat-e faqih means “rule of the jurisprudent” and is the shorthand term used to describe the philosophical underpinnings of the iranian regime. Brie y, according to Khomeini’s theories about politics, the government should be presided over by the person most learned in islam and islamic legal theory, the supreme jurisprudent. is is how Khomeini justi ed the creation of a theocratic regime in iran, and his own predominance within it.
52 as quoted in Je rey Donovan, “iran: Pressure Builds on Washington to Promote ‘regime change,’” radio Free europe, June 17, 2003.
53 eli Lake, “ is Pretty Much Kills the iran Democracy Program,” New York Sun, November 8, 2007. Lake reports that $49 million of the $75
million authorized in 2006 went to Voice of america Persian and radio Farda. Lake’s article also discusses the allegation that U.s. funding of democracy programs is detrimental for reformers, addressed in more detail below.
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promoting democracy in iran, and has spent tens of millions of dollars to this end.54 is legisla- tion noted that promoting antiregime media and backing civil society and human rights organiza- tions were appropriate uses of the funding, but it stipulated that the funds were not to be used to support the use of force or for entities that are designated as foreign terrorist organizations. e press has also reported a host of covert programs designed to promote regime change or bolster an- tiregime o cials.
in one sense, encouraging a popular revolution in iran might require very little—perhaps even nothing at all—from the United states. Very few true popular revolutions have been successfully abetted, let alone caused, by an external power. rather, most are propelled by forces indigenous to the country. even in the case of the velvet revolutions that followed the end of the cold War, it is hard to nd one that the United states directly caused. certainly, there were some that the United states probably helped by encourag- ing them and pledging assistance once they got going, but it is impossible to know whether such revolutions would have succeeded or failed with- out that support—and many others succeeded or failed based on factors wholly unrelated to exter- nal assistance.
however, if the United states were determined to try to cause a revolution, this could be a very tall order because of the limited knowledge about how these phenomena begin and succeed. at the very least, it is clear that if the United states were going to have any chance at instigating a revolution, it would have to nd e ective and popular iranian oppositionists with whom to
work. a popular revolution certainly requires homegrown leaders, even if they are brought in by sealed train, as Lenin supposedly was by Wil- helmine Germany. in addition, the United states would need to ensure that its support does more good than harm. it is also necessary that iran’s ex- isting security services, which have proven them- selves quite capable, either are unable to act or choose not to. Finally, all of this, in turn, requires excellent intelligence and, for some options, con- siderable funding.
Finding the right Proxies
one of the hardest tasks in fomenting a revolu- tion, or even just unrest, is nding the right local partners. resisting an authoritarian regime like tehran’s is a dangerous game: failure can mean not only arrest or execution for the rebels, but also severe punishment for their families. in ad- dition, a regime has huge advantages in organiza- tion and unity in general: its forces work together (for the most part), magnifying their strength. e opposition, in contrast, o en begins as disor- ganized idealists and has di culty communicat- ing e ectively. a quick look at some of the more plausible candidates for a revolution illustrates the di culty of nding the proper local channels for e ecting a revolution.
iran’s reform movement would appear to be the most obvious vehicle for popular revolution. ere is considerable evidence that many within the reform movement during the 1990s explic- itly sought to topple the islamic regime and re- place it with a secular democracy. Unfortunately, the reformist movement rose and fell with the fortunes of former president Muhammad Khatami, who proved unwilling to lead the revolution that
54 e act itself authorizes the spending of $75 million, although only $66.1 million was ever appropriated. some additional monies were added in subsequent years. only a portion has been spent, in part because the U.s. government did not nd suitable recipients.
so many of his followers seemed to want. e tre- mendous disappointment of his presidency caused a fragmentation of the movement he led, and today the reformist parties are divided and weak. Many former reformists have abandoned the formal re- formist parties for others that are considered more e ective. e reformists are suppressed, harassed, and o en barred from o ce by the regime. al- though many iranians still share the same ideals (and probably goals) as the reformists, the parties and their leaders no longer have the ability to mo- bilize the populace the way they once did.
Moreover, although some reformists clearly sought a full-scale revolution, it is not clear that all did. Many probably only sought speci c chang- es—an end to corruption, greater transparency and accountability, a weakening of the powerful unelected government entities that ultimately rule the islamic republic, more competent eco- nomic management, and an end to the stringent social codes that still govern iranian life. cer- tainly, these would represent dramatic changes in the nature of iranian governance, but they are not necessarily incompatible with the continuation of the islamic republic.
e questioning of the underlying legitimacy of a regime by intellectuals is o en and correctly seen as a serious threat: having the regime dis- credited among key “opinion shapers” is a critical precondition for its collapse. iran has a signi cant intellectual class, consisting not only of academ- ics and reformist journalists but also, and perhaps more important, dissident clerics. time and again these voices have criticized the regime, with some going so far as to question the legitimacy of the velayat-e faqih system itself. ese criticisms ap- peared to reach a high point under the presidency of Khatami in the late 1990s.
Dissident clerics are a particularly important part of the elite opposition. eir criticisms
speak directly to regime legitimacy, which rests on religious credentials. Not surprisingly, the regime has tried to use both formal and infor- mal means to sideline these people. in addition, these clerics are limited in part by their own message: because they push for the clergy to be more apolitical, their own political involvement tends to be limited.
since the peak of reform in the late 1990s, intel- lectuals in iran, both clerical and lay, have suf- fered tremendous repression. Many have been beaten or threatened with force. others have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges, lost their jobs, or even killed or driven into exile. Less directly, but probably more e ectively, ma- jor media outlets have denied them airtime, and the regime monitors them and prevents them from speaking to large groups. Dissent does get out, but because of this censorship and intimida- tion, it is less e ective than it would otherwise be. even indirect contacts with foreign organi- zations, particularly ones linked to U.s. democ- racy promotion e orts such as the National en- dowment for Democracy, are grounds for severe punishment.
Student, Labor, and Civil Society
students and workers are o en the shock troops of revolutionary movements. students typically are willing to take considerable risks and, in so doing, expose holes in the regime’s coercive ap- paratus or create divisions within the existing elite. in the 1990s, students in particular were enthusiastic about Khatami and the promise of reform. indeed, during the summers of 1999 and 2003, thousands of students at tehran University attempted to start just such a revolution, as their forebears had in the revolution of 1978. But this time around, none of iran’s other popular fac- tions was willing to join them. Workers too have demonstrated from time to time against regime policies.
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as with the intellectuals, the regime has cracked down, o en brutally, on the activities of students, workers, and members of civil society organiza- tions. student movements are almost certainly heavily penetrated by regime intelligence ser- vices, and the activists are o en not allowed to register for classes. e regime frequently resorts to mass arrests to prevent protests from happen- ing, but when dissidents are able to stage e ective rallies, the demonstrators are o en beaten, and counterdemonstrations (o en consisting of pro- regime vigilantes) are swi ly organized to keep unrest in check. For example, participants in at least one rally for women’s rights were called in advance and warned not to go: those who went anyway faced vigilantes, who beat some demon- strators, and police, who arrested others.55 if this were not enough, the main student organization, Da ar-e Takhim-e Vahdat (o ce for consolida- tion of Unity), is riven with personality disputes and schisms over strategy and tactics.
another name pointed to as a potential leader of iran is reza Pahlavi, the son of the last shah. in the United states, Pahlavi has emerged as a leading critic of the clerical regime, calling for it to be con- fronted politically and economically. Pahlavi has re- ferred to himself as “a catalyst” to help bring about regime change and a democratic and constitutional government (including perhaps a constitutional monarchy) rather than a return to the absolutist monarchy of his father.56 While iranian expatri- ate-sponsored media have broadcast interviews of Pahlavi into the islamic republic, Pahlavi lacks an organized following within the country. however, although some iranians, particularly younger ones with no memory of his father’s regime, appear to evince some nostalgia for the monarchy, there is no serious monarchist movement in iran itself.
Less than the Sum of Its Parts
although the above list of candidates is impres- sive, many of the individuals rarely work togeth- er, and some o er little or could even discredit a broader movement. akbar Ganji, an iranian journalist whose articles exposed regime murders and who was imprisoned for six years as punish- ment, has said of the iranian opposition, “it’s not organized. . . . and we still don’t have a leader.”57 Many of these people, like Pahlavi, have little in common with the intellectuals and students who make up the core of the reform movement. so far, no charismatic leader has emerged to unite the di erent organizations and inspire other iranians to take up the banner of change.
a signi cant program to promote democracy in iran would require far more money than Wash- ington has currently allocated. if the United states is to go beyond its current modest e ort to pro- mote democracy, it would have to spend tens of millions of dollars a year, if not more. is re- quirement would grow if the programs are suc- cessful: more people would have to be support- ed, and they would require more equipment to communicate and travel. in addition, the United states would have to accept the reality of waste and fraud. some of the money would be siphoned o by schemers, while other money would go to back gures who turn out to have little support.
Meddling in the internal politics of another coun- try requires excellent intelligence if the e orts are to succeed. indeed, a lack of intelligence can even lead a program to back re, as the regime manipu- lates it to its advantage. to support democratic
55 Barbara slavin, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (New York: st. Martin’s Press, 2007), p. 158.
56 “reza Pahlavi o ers senators ree-Pronged approach on iran,” Pr Newswire, september 14, 2006. 57 slavin, Bitter Friends, p. 155.
oppositionists, the United states needs to help them organize and be sure that their message is getting across. in addition, Washington needs to support leaders who are e ective and who can- not be co-opted by the regime. Without this in- formation, the United states may back the wrong people or be beguiled by gures who are secretly controlled by iranian intelligence.
Unfortunately, it appears that this level of detailed intelligence on iran is thus far lacking. Because the United states lacks an embassy on the ground or the ability to dispatch personnel to iran on a regu- lar basis, information on the country’s incredibly complex politics is o en negligible. Much of the information the United states requires involves an understanding of iran’s indigenous political forces that are extraordinarily di cult for outsiders to comprehend, let alone recognize the shi ing alli- ances among them in anything like real time. con- sequently, strengthening this degree of intelligence collection in iran would require the U.s. intelli- gence community—which has already made iran a priority for decades—to intensify its e orts.
one of the few elements that scholars do believe is a constant in successful popular revolutions is that the regime must lose the will or the ability to employ violence e ectively to crush the revo- lution.58 it seems unlikely that the islamic re- gime will lose the will to crush internal threats to its rule. it is widely rumored among iranians that iran’s current leaders believe that the only reason that they succeeded in overthrowing the shah in 1978 was because he lost his nerve and refused to let the army crush the revolution (as many of his generals wanted)—and they have no intention of falling as he did. since 1979, the
regime has been ruthless in cracking down on the slightest hint of domestic unrest. indeed, this has always been its rst priority, for instance, re- taining most of its combat power in Kurdistan to crush a Kurdish revolt even a er the iraqi inva- sion of 1980, when iran had virtually nothing to stop saddam husayn’s tanks as they drove into oil-rich Khuzestan.59
consequently, if the United states ever succeeds in sparking a revolt against the clerical regime, Washington may have to consider whether to pro- vide it with some form of military support to pre- vent tehran from crushing it. in 1991, a er the Persian Gulf War, the United states called on the people of iraq to overthrow saddam husayn, and hundreds of thousands (maybe even a few mil- lions) of iraqis, mostly shi’ah and Kurds, heeded the call and rose up against saddam. Washington then decided not to assist them, either by continu- ing its military operations against the remnants of saddam’s forces or by providing weapons, air sup- port, and other assistance to the rebels. infamous- ly, what remained of saddam’s republican Guard then systematically butchered as many as 100,000 shi’i and Kurdish rebels and broke the nascent revolution. if the policy proposed here succeeds in producing large-scale revolts against the ira- nian regime, but nothing else has intervened to weaken the iranian military (particularly the re- gime’s most loyal services like the revolutionary Guard, Ansar-e Hizballah [Followers of the Party of God], and the Basij [militia]), then the United states may need to be ready to intervene in some form to prevent the revolutionaries from being slaughtered in similar fashion.
is requirement means that a popular revo- lution in iran does not seem to t the model of the “velvet revolutions” that occurred elsewhere.
58 eda skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (New York: cambridge University Press, 1979); eda skocpol, Social Revolutions in the Modern World (New York: cambridge University Press, 1994).
59 ray takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution (New York: oxford University Press, forthcoming), p. 90.
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e point is that the iranian regime may not be willing to go gently into that good night; instead, and unlike so many eastern european regimes, it may choose to ght to the death. in those circum- stances, if there is not external military assistance to the revolutionaries, they might not just fail but be massacred.
consequently, if the United states is to pursue this policy, Washington must take this possibility into consideration. it adds some very important requirements to the list: either the policy must include ways to weaken the iranian military or weaken the willingness of the regime’s leaders to call on the military, or else the United states must be ready to intervene to defeat it.
Pros and Cons
e following are the advantages and disadvantag- es of supporting a popular uprising.
at least on paper, more than any other op- tion, regime change o ers the greatest poten- tial bene ts for the least cost. if it is success- ful, regime change could alter iran from one of america’s biggest enemies to a potential friend while at the same time changing an op- pressive regime to a democratic one (in some variations), or at least one that is probably more friendly. in addition, this change could occur at a fraction of the cost of overthrowing the regime by mounting an invasion.
even if triggering a popular revolution proves impossible, supporting iranian op- position groups could still weaken and dis- tract the regime and possibly limit its abil- ity to make mischief elsewhere.
even if a revolution does not occur during the tenure of the current administration, a
steady, low-pro le e ort to bolster democ- racy in iran may pay dividends in years or decades to come.
some elements of the policy, such as trying to increase intelligence penetration of iran’s military and security services, should be implemented even if Washington chooses not to adopt the whole approach. Many of these programs can be continued with much less fanfare and, if anything, become more e ective in the long term for other policy options.
By adopting regime change as its policy, the United states can demonstrate a com- mitment to its democratic ideals that has been sadly lacking in past decades, a situ- ation that has greatly damaged the status of the United states in the Muslim world. claims of double standards in democracy and “arab exceptionalism”—by which Mid- dle easterners mean that the United states promotes democracy everywhere else in the world except the Middle east, where it is comfortable with autocracies that guaran- tee the oil ow—are key elements of the an- ti-americanism that dominates the Middle eastern street. if the iranian regime contin- ues to foment instability across the Middle east, and the United states and the interna- tional community are unwilling to stop it, at the very least, the United states would al- ways be able to say that it never enabled or appeased that trend. Washington may not succeed in stopping tehran, but it would not have been complicit in assisting it.
e biggest challenge to regime change would be its feasibility. For all its many shortcomings, the iranian government is well entrenched. as suzanne Maloney
notes, “ e islamic republic has sur- vived every calamity short of the plague: war, isolation, instability, terrorist attacks, leadership transition, drought and epic earthquakes.”60 e regime is absolutely paranoid about the slightest hint of inter- nal revolt and has successfully repressed, co-opted, or isolated potential sources of resistance.
as a result, the regime has made it ex- tremely di cult for opposition movements to survive, let alone thrive and gain popular support. Ultimately, those oppositionists who are most organized have at best mar- ginal prospects, and many are risky bets.
e results of regime change may be less to Washington’s liking than expected. as richard haass points out, ousting a regime is hard enough, but replacing a regime with a government that serves U.s. interests and governs well is far harder yet.61
even democratic regime change would not necessarily bring to power a pro-american government. Despite the desire on the part of many iranians for closer relations with the United states, U.s. policies in the region remain unpopular with most iranians, and past U.s. meddling and current U.s. e orts to isolate iran also may be viewed with hostil- ity. at said, most alternatives to the current regime would probably be less supportive of terrorism and, in general, less re exively anti-american in their policies. iran would still be likely to try to maintain a strong posi- tion in iraq (where its geopolitical interests
are overwhelming), and may continue to pursue its nuclear program (support for a nuclear program is robust among most iranian elites). however, it is possible that new leaders might be more open to cooper- ating with Washington on these issues and generally would be more sensitive to inter- national opinion and economic pressures than the current regime.
U.s. support may back re. in the past, and especially since the 1978 revolution, american backing has typically been the kiss of death for internal iranian opposi- tion groups (for instance, very modest U.s. e orts to support regime change in the 1990s helped discredit reformers in iran). so many iranians instinctively bristle at american meddling in their country’s af- fairs that even groups favorably disposed to the United states typically refuse to accept any american support for fear of being dis- credited among the people as foreign lack- eys, and being arrested and charged with treason by the government. as such, many leading reformers in iran have spoken out against U.s. funding for democracy promo- tion or other e orts to encourage regime change in iran. today, as abbas Milani of stanford University notes, “anyone who wants american money in iran is going to be tainted in the eyes of iranians.”62 Not surprisingly, the state Department has of- ten found it di cult to spend the money it has allocated to promote democracy.63 it is thus possible that an aggressive U.s. regime change policy may lead to a weaker demo- cratic movement.
60 suzanne Maloney, “Fear and Loathing in tehran,” National Interest (september/october 2007).
61 richard haass, “regime change and its Limits,” Foreign A airs 84, no. 4 (July/august 2005): pp. 66-78.
62 as quoted in tom Barry, “iran Freedom and regime change Politics,” May 19, 2006. available at <http://rightweb.irc-online.org/rw/3277.
html>. e quote is taken from the New York Times.
63 Negar azimi, “hard realities of so Power,” New York Times, June 24, 2007.
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Greater e orts to promote democracy and work with opposition gures may prompt the regime to crack down harder. increased (and very high-pro le) U.s. funding for democracy promotion in iran in the past ve years led to a crackdown on iranians involved in track ii dialogue and on those trying to develop civil society organiza- tions. e attention given to the Bush ad- ministration’s program to promote democ- racy in iran suggests the problems with this approach. although the overall amount of money is a fraction of what a sustained democracy program would require, the iranian government has proven exception- ally paranoid about it. iranian intelligence o cials regularly bring up this appropria- tion when they interrogate activists.64 as a result, many iranians are wary of activi- ties that could even indirectly be linked to the United states.65 as Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, who has campaigned for women’s rights in iran, contends, U.s. support for civil society “becomes a ready tool for the iranian government to use against totally independent activists. it’s been very coun- terproductive.”66
should e orts take o and a mass move- ment develop, the clerical regime is unlike- ly to go without a ght. e regime might resort to a brutal crackdown that leads to the death and imprisonment of thousands. its rhetoric and actions against the reform movement in the past indicate that it be- lieves violence is legitimate and that it does
not need to have the support of the iranian people for its actions, as long as it can jus- tify them according to the regime’s ruling islamic credo. it appears more likely than not that loyal military units would re into crowds, and the regime would not hesitate to carry out mass trials to stay in power.
regardless of the policy’s ultimate outcome, iran is likely to retaliate almost immediate- ly against the United states just for having supported reformers and other opposition- ists. tehran is exceptionally sensitive to the security of the regime, and its current lead- ers are loyal to their vision of the legacy of the islamic revolution. if the United states directly threatened its power with a mas- sive campaign, tehran would likely take several steps. First, it would step up its sup- port for guerrilla and terrorist groups. iraq would be a particularly likely venue given iran’s extensive paramilitary and intelli- gence presence there, as well as the avail- ability of many U.s. targets. afghanistan, too, would be a likely theater for an iranian response. attacks elsewhere in the Middle east and europe would also be quite possi- ble. second, because U.s. e orts to promote regime change would a rm iran’s paranoia about its own security, tehran would re- inforce its already high commitment to its nuclear program. ird, iran might step up its military buildup, though even a sig- ni cant investment would have only a mar- ginal impact on the U.s.-iran conventional military balance.
robin Wright, “on Guard over U.s. Funds, Pro-Democracy Program Leads tehran to scrutinize activists,” Washington Post, april 28, 2007. 65 azimi, “hard realities.”
66 Wright, “on Guard over U.s. Funds.”
iNsPiriNG aN iNsUrGeNcY
supporting iranian Minority and opposition Groups
as much as many americans might like to help the iranian people rise up and take their destiny in their own hands, the evidence suggests that its likelihood is low—and that american assistance could well make it less like- ly rather than more. consequently, some who fa- vor fomenting regime change in iran argue that it is utopian to hold out hope for a velvet revolu- tion; instead, they contend that the United states should turn to iranian opposition groups that already exist, that already have demonstrated a desire to ght the regime, and who appear will- ing to accept U.s. assistance. e hope behind this course of action is that these various oppo- sition groups could transform themselves into more potent movements that might be able to overturn the regime.
For instance, the United states could opt to work primarily with various unhappy iranian ethnic groups (Kurds, Baluch, arabs, and so on) who have fought the regime at various periods since the revolution. a coalition of ethnic opposition movements, particularly if combined with dissi- dent Persians, would pose a serious threat to re- gime stability. in addition, the unrest the groups themselves create could weaken the regime at home. at the least, the regime would have to di- vert resources to putting down the rebellions. at most, the unrest might discredit the regime over time, weakening its position vis-à-vis its rivals.
e United states could also attempt to promote external iranian opposition groups, providing them with the support to turn themselves into full- edged insurgencies and even helping them militarily defeat the forces of the clerical regime. e United states could work with groups like the iraq-based National council of resistance of iran (Ncri) and its military wing, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MeK), helping the thousands of its mem- bers who, under saddam husayn’s regime, were armed and had conducted guerrilla and terrorist operations against the clerical regime. although the Ncri is supposedly disarmed today, that could quickly be changed.
supporting an insurgency could have two di er- ent potential goals, with one e ectively a fallback position of the other. Like supporting a popular revolution, one goal of supporting an insurgency would be to try to overthrow the iranian regime altogether, in the expectation that doing so would alleviate america’s problems with iran.
however, even if U.s. support for an insurgency failed to produce the overthrow of the regime, it could still place tehran under considerable pres- sure, which might either prevent the regime from making mischief abroad or persuade it to make concessions on issues of importance to the United
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states (such as its nuclear program and support to hamas, hizballah, and the taliban). indeed, Washington might decide that this second objec- tive is a more compelling rationale for supporting an insurgency than the (much less likely) goal of actually overthrowing the regime.
insurgencies take a long time to succeed, when they succeed at all. it takes time for insurgents to identify leaders and recruit personnel, estab- lish bases and gather equipment, and learn tac- tics and pro ciency with weapons. it takes even longer to win popular support, erode the morale of the government’s armed forces, and then un- dermine the government’s legitimacy. ere are o en crippling setbacks along the way, during which even an ultimately successful insurgency may need to spend months or years regrouping and rebuilding.
For all of these reasons, insurgencies typically take decades to overthrow a government. over the past century, successful counterinsurgency campaigns lasted an average of about nine years, and these were typically only mounted against insurgencies that had demonstrated the capabil- ity to threaten the government’s grip on power, either in a region or the nation as a whole, and thus were already fairly advanced. e afghan mujahideen—one of the most successful insur- gencies of recent times—took ten years to evict the soviets from afghanistan. e Viet cong and the chinese communists each took more than twice as long to succeed in their respective con- icts. Fidel castro’s guerrilla war took less than six years to overthrow the Batista regime in cuba, but this victory came against a badly disorganized regime defended by demoralized and disa ected troops. it would be di cult to replicate castro’s rapid success against a well-entrenched iranian regime that can still muster numerous fanatical defenders.
consequently, if the goal of this policy is to ac- tually overthrow the iranian regime, doing so would take many years, if not several decades. it is clearly not a quick x to Washington’s near- term problems with iran. however, there are two exceptions to the rule that insurgencies take a long time to reach their goal.
First, if the goal of an insurgency is merely to put pressure on the regime, the goal could be met much more quickly than the time span outlined above. history has shown that depending on the state of the insurgency when a foreign power decided to back it, pressure was produced on the targeted regime in as little as a few years or even months. When the shah of iran, the Unit- ed states, and israel began to back iraqi Kurds against Baghdad, it took only a few years for the Ba’thist regime to move against it—and only a matter of months of unsuccessful military cam- paigning to convince saddam husayn to cut a deal with the shah to persuade him to cut his ties with the Kurds.
second, even if the goal remains to overthrow the regime, an insurgency can be greatly assist- ed by outside conventional military assistance. a good example of this was the U.s. air support and special forces personnel deployed to help af- ghanistan’s Northern alliance during operation enduring Freedom in 2001. e Northern alli- ance was a competent military force, but it had no chance of overthrowing the taliban until the United states decided to provide direct military assistance a er the 9/11 attacks. When the Unit- ed states did so, the taliban regime cracked in a matter of weeks as the Northern alliance took control of the country.
overview of the Policy
e core concept lying at the heart of this option would be for the United states to identify one or more iranian opposition groups and support
them as it did other insurgencies in afghanistan, Nicaragua, Kurdistan, angola, and dozens of oth- er locales since the second World War. e Unit- ed states would provide arms, money, training, and organizational assistance to help the groups develop and extend their reach. U.s. media and propaganda outlets could highlight group griev- ances and showcase rival leaders. e United states would help the groups identify a base in a neighboring country, secure the host nation’s sup- port for the groups, and help them develop an in- frastructure to support operations in iran.
a key question that the United states would have to address would be the extent of its direct military support to the groups. e central in- telligence agency (cia) could take care of most of the supplies and training for these groups, as it has for decades all over the world. however, Washington would need to decide whether to provide the groups with direct military assistance under three scenarios:
as general support to allow the groups a much greater chance of success and a much more rapid pace of victory. as noted above, massive external conventional mili- tary assistance can greatly assist an insur- gency. again, U.s. support to the Northern alliance against the taliban regime in af- ghanistan in 2001 is a good example.
to prevent a massacre of the insurgents. Not all insurgencies succeed, and some fail disastrously. in iraq in 1991 when the shi’ah and Kurds revolted against saddam husayn, and in cuba at the Bay of Pigs 30 years before, american-backed insurgents called for american military aid when they were on the brink of disaster. in both cases, the United states turned its back on them, and they were slaughtered. e United states should decide well ahead of time whether it would commit military
forces to prevent a massacre. if it is pre- pared to respond, it should have the neces- sary forces in place near iran so that they are available if needed.
3. to protect neighboring countries pro- viding sanctuary to the insurgents. any insurgency against the iranian regime would need a safe haven and conduit for arms and other supplies through one or more of iran’s neighbors. e clerical re- gime may decide to retaliate against those neighboring states to try to force them to desist, and the United states may be called upon to protect them. During the Vietnam War, Viet cong ghters had their sanctu- ary in North Vietnam, and many ameri- cans wanted to invade the North to force it to halt this practice. e U.s. military famously did mount a protracted and un- successful coercive air campaign against the North to try to persuade it to end such support. however, the United states chose not to launch an invasion, in part for fear that china and russia would come to ha- noi’s defense.
it seems unlikely that any american adminis- tration would be willing to provide the kind of military support envisioned in the rst of these scenarios. operation enduring Freedom in af- ghanistan was closer to an invasion than an in- surgency, and mounting a similar campaign against iran would give up all of the advantages of an insurgency in terms of plausible deniability, thereby undercutting the willingness of neighbor- ing states to support it. Unfortunately, the second situation is a very real possibility that the United states has faced on other occasions. e third situation could also occur and so Washington would have to be ready to come to the defense of the neighboring states supporting the guerrillas, or else face the prospect of losing their support in the bid to overthrow the regime.
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e United states should expect to provide an ar- ray of assistance to insurgents, depending on their military skill and their degree of popular support. e more competent and popular the insurgents are, the less they would need american aid. still, U.s. training could greatly augment the e ective- ness of their existing forces, and arms and fund- ing could improve their equipment and help them recruit. Direct U.s. military support could help them conduct e ective operations and defeat larger iranian military forces.
consequently, the United states would have to ex- pect to invest a fair amount of money, weaponry, and other resources in the insurgencies it chose to back. however, especially when compared to the cost of conventional military operations, insur- gencies are a bargain. For instance, the entire pro- gram to support the afghan mujahideen against the soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 cost the United states only $600 million a year, compared to the $21 billion a year the country has spent on average in afghanistan since 2001.67
Nevertheless, mounting an insurgency against tehran, especially one that might threaten the re- gime’s survival, would be a di cult undertaking, and there are at least two major requirements: nding an insurgent group that could mount such a challenge and nding a neighboring state willing to act as the conduit (and safe haven) for the group.
Finding a Proxy
e rst—and potentially most problematic—re- quirement to implement this option is to identify a potential insurgent group that is willing and able to play this role with american assistance. e best candidate for such a role would be a
broad-based opposition group with cohesiveness, some history of armed resistance, a clear leader- ship, and widespread popular support. Unfortu- nately, none of the current candidates can claim to meet all of those criteria. consequently, the United states would have to opt either for ethnic groups that possess the cohesiveness, leadership, and popular support from a segment of iranian society, or for the MeK—which arguably has the leadership and cohesiveness but has little popular support at present.
Potential ethnic Proxies
although Persians dominate iran, they represent only half of the population. at least to some out- side observers, iran appears rife with ethnic un- rest, and these cleavages could become the means by which the United states could try to mobilize one or more insurgencies against the islamic re- gime. tehran has o en been harsh in its crack- downs on minority groups, many of which are concentrated away from the capital and thus are hidden from media attention. iran’s arab and Baluch populations both are poor and su er from discrimination. as a result, arab separatists in the southwestern province of Khuzestan have conducted a number of terrorist bombings in the regional capital of ahvaz in recent years. in addi- tion, iran’s Kurdish population is large and, a er the 1979 revolution, sustained a bloody rebellion that lasted several years and led to the deaths of thousands of Kurds. e anger and strife contin- ue to this day: in 2005, a er iranian police killed a Kurdish leader, 20 Kurds died in demonstrations.
Despite the harsh crackdowns, the iranian regime is weak in parts of the country. in Kurdish and Baluchi areas in particular, the government has never established comprehensive governance. instead, several groups have strong tribal ties, and in the case of the Kurds, a cohesive sense of
67 amy Belasco, “ e cost of iraq, afghanistan, and other Global War on terror operations since 9/11,” rL33110, congressional research service, october 15, 2008, pp. 2, 6 and 7; Gilles Kepel, Jihad (cambridge, Ma: Belknap, 2002), p. 143.
identity that is not tied to the regime. e groups have used smuggling to strengthen themselves, bringing in weapons, to the point where many are now well-armed. Geography and terrain have helped these groups resist tehran, as large parts of iran are rugged and thus good guerrilla country.
although these groups are more organized than students and workers and, in the Kurdish case, represent a sizeable entity, their ability to mobilize beyond their communities is limited. Persians tend to be highly nationalistic and would have to be ex- pected to unite over any perceived attempt to frag- ment the country. Nor are there strong ties among the non-Persian groups, and in the past, these divisions have allowed them to be contained and defeated piecemeal. some large ethnic groups also have no desire to oppose the regime. For instance, iran’s azeri population, which represents roughly a quarter of the country’s overall population are well integrated (supreme Leader Khamene’i is of azeri origin) and have worked closely with Persian elites.
as the above discussion suggests, the Kurds are the most likely proxy given their size, cohesive identity, and ambitions. e Kurds, however, are divided internally, and many of their leaders have been co-opted by the state, while those who have not are o en subject to brutal intimidation. irani- an intelligence aggressively targets Kurdish leaders abroad, whether in iraq or europe—even to the point of assassination. e Kurds are also justi - ably suspicious of outside promises, having been used and discarded in the past. Finally, stirring Kurdish separatism in iran would not play well in either Baghdad or ankara, two key american allies whose aid would be needed for any insur- gent campaign against iran.
National Council of resistance/
Perhaps the most prominent (and certainly the most controversial) opposition group that has at- tracted attention as a potential U.s. proxy is the Ncri (National council of resistance of iran), the political movement established by the MeK (Mujahedin-e Khalq). critics believe the group to be undemocratic and unpopular, and indeed anti-american. in contrast, the group’s champi- ons contend that the movement’s long-standing opposition to the iranian regime and record of successful attacks on and intelligence-gathering operations against the regime make it worthy of U.s. support. ey also argue that the group is no longer anti-american and question the merit of earlier accusations. raymond tanter, one of the group’s supporters in the United states, contends that the MeK and the Ncri are allies for regime change in tehran and also act as a useful proxy for gathering intelligence.68 e MeK’s greatest intel- ligence coup was the provision of intelligence in 2002 that led to the discovery of a secret site in iran for enriching uranium.
Despite its defenders’ claims, the MeK remains on the U.s. government list of foreign terror- ist organizations. in the 1970s, the group killed three U.s. o cers and three civilian contractors in iran.69 During the 1979-1980 hostage crisis, the group praised the decision to take american hostages and elaine sciolino reported that while group leaders publicly condemned the 9/11 at- tacks, within the group celebrations were wide- spread.70 Undeniably, the group has conducted terrorist attacks—o en excused by the MeK’s ad- vocates because they are directed against the ira- nian government. For example, in 1981, the group
68 raymond tanter, “iran Building Nuclear-capable Missiles in secret tunnels: options for the international community,” iran Policy committee, November 21, 2005, available at <http://www.iranwatch.org/privateviews/iPc/perspex-ipc-tanter- nuclearcapablemissiles-112105.htm>.
69 e MeK claims the individuals responsible were executed by the shah’s regime and thus are no longer part of the movement. see slavin, Bitter Friends, p. 168.
70 elaine sciolino, “iranian opposition Movement’s Many Faces,” New York Times, June 30, 2003.
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bombed the headquarters of the islamic republic Party, which was then the clerical leadership’s main political organization, killing an estimated 70 senior o cials. More recently, the group has claimed credit for over a dozen mortar attacks, assassinations, and other assaults on iranian civil- ian and military targets between 1998 and 2001. at the very least, to work more closely with the group (at least in an overt manner), Washington would need to remove it from the list of foreign terrorist organizations.
e group itself also appears to be undemocratic and enjoys little popularity in iran itself. it has no political base in the country, although it appears to have an operational presence. in particular, its active participation on saddam husayn’s side during the bitter iran-iraq War made the group widely loathed. in addition, many aspects of the group are cultish, and its leaders, Massoud and Maryam rajavi, are revered to the point of obses- sion. as iran scholar ervand abrahamian claims, “it is a mystical cult. . . . if Massoud rajavi got up tomorrow and said the world was at, his mem- bers would accept it.”71
Despite its limited popularity (but perhaps be- cause of its successful use of terrorism), the ira- nian regime is exceptionally sensitive to the MeK and is vigilant in guarding against it. During the early years of the revolution, the regime rooted out members throughout iran and massacred demonstrators who marched in the group’s name. abroad, the regime monitors the group’s activities carefully, tries to disrupt its bases, and at times has assassinated its members.
Finding a Conduit and Safe haven
of equal importance (and potential di culty) will be nding a neighboring country willing to serve as the conduit for U.s. aid to the insurgent
group, as well as to provide a safe haven where the group can train, plan, organize, heal, and resupply. is was the role that Pakistan played when the United states provided aid to the af- ghan mujahideen in the 1980s, and the shah’s iran played when the United states provided aid to the Kurds in the 1970s. Without such a part- ner, it would be far more di cult for the United states to support an insurgency. one thing that the United states would have in its favor when searching for a state to play this role is that many of iran’s neighbors dislike and fear the islamic republic.
however, balanced against that are a series of hurdles that the United states would have to over- come. even those states that loathe and fear teh- ran have le no doubt that they do not seek an open con ict with iran, and supporting an insur- gency could provoke iranian retaliation. More- over, these states fear tehran would likely retaliate through its unconventional warfare capabilities by increasing support for insurgents, terrorists, and other opposition groups in any neighboring state that supports the insurgency.
to deal with this, the United states would not only have to reassure the neighboring state, but also potentially provide real aid. e neighbor- ing state may seek american counterterrorism assistance as a way of bracing itself for iranian unconventional retaliation. it might ask for a more conventional commitment of american military protection to deter iranian aggres- sion. and, almost certainly, the state would use its fear of tehran’s response to get other things from the United states. For instance, during the 1980s, the Pakistanis demanded stepped up american arms sales and military training (for a conventional war against india) in return for its help in afghanistan, despite the fact that no one bene ted more from the american aid to the
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mujahideen than did Pakistan. e United states would have to expect the same or similar from iran’s neighbors, which include Pakistan—an obvious conduit for american support to a Balu- chi insurgency.
ere is another likely obstacle to securing a neighboring safe haven for ethnic insurgencies against tehran: many of those ethnic groups span the borders between iran and the potential spon- soring state, which o en has the same problems with that ethnic group as does tehran. Both the turks and iraqis would be logical conduits to sup- port a Kurdish insurgency against iran, but that is highly unlikely because both Baghdad and anka- ra fear Kurdish aspirations for independence and believe that supporting an armed Kurdish bid for independence against iran (which is inevitably what a Kurdish insurgency would aim for) would galvanize their own Kurdish populations to seek the same.
Pros and Cons
e following are the advantages and disadvantag- es of supporting an insurgency.
is approach has some potential to over- turn the regime and bring to power an- other government more amenable to the United states.
While an insurgency is typically less dan- gerous to the regime than a popular revo- lution (if only because insurgencies o en take longer and follow a more predictable course), an insurgency is o en easier to instigate and support from abroad. Unlike the option of trying to promote a popu- lar revolution, supporting one or more insurgencies against the regime would rely on groups that are already organized,
committed to opposing the regime with force, and have some history of having done so. Moreover, at least some of these groups have indicated a willingness to ac- cept support from the United states.
even if this policy failed to overthrow the regime, supporting one or more insur- gencies would put pressure on tehran. it would divert the regime’s attention and resources, possibly limiting its ability to make mischief elsewhere in the region. it also might make iran more amenable to compromise on issues of importance to the United states in return for Washing- ton’s agreement to cease its support to the various insurgent groups.
is option requires relatively few resourc- es. insurgencies are famously cheap to sup- port, hence iran’s ability to support them in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, iraq, and afghanistan simultaneously.
e United states has considerable experi- ence supporting insurgencies and has en- joyed a number of successes in doing so over the years.
Properly executed, covert support to an in- surgency would provide the United states with “plausible deniability.” as a result, the diplomatic and political backlash would likely be much less than if the United states were to mount a direct military action.
it would be di cult to nd or build an in- surgency with a high likelihood of success. e existing candidates are weak and di- vided, and the iranian regime is very strong relative to the potential internal and exter- nal challengers.
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supporting one or more insurgency groups is much less likely than a popular revolu- tion to produce actual regime change in iran. e Kurds, the Baluch, the arabs of Khuzestan—none of these groups is likely to trigger a nationwide movement to topple the regime. indeed, they are more likely to rally iran’s majority Persian community (54 per- cent of the population) around the regime. is is not to say that an insurgency could not accomplish meaningful results, only that it would be di cult for an insurgency to produce true regime change—let alone do so in time to prevent the regime from ac- quiring a nuclear weapons capability.
a “successful” insurgency is more likely to allow the group waging it to achieve more limited goals, such as secession. successful cases of secession have an historical ten- dency to trigger additional bids for seces- sion among other neighboring groups.72 in the case of iran, that could easily include the iraqi and turkish Kurds, or a variety of caucasian or central asian groups, which would then provoke civil con ict in those countries.
an “unsuccessful” but well-supported in- surgency could easily produce a civil war instead, with the insurgency unable to secede or topple the government but, be- cause of its foreign backing, able to keep on ghting. civil war itself has a tendency to produce dangerous forms of spillover that can destabilize neighboring states.73 again, since many of iran’s neighbors are impor- tant allies of the United states, this could be potentially harmful to american interests.
iran would likely ght back, and the Unit- ed states would be engaging iran in the dimension of warfare at which it is most adept. iran’s greatest military strength lies in the realm of “unconventional warfare”— insurgencies, terrorism, and other forms of low-intensity con ict. While the United states also has formidable capabilities in this arena (capabilities greatly improved by its experience in iraq and afghanistan), the U.s. advantage here is not as overwhelm- ing as it is at the conventional level. Doubt- less, the iranians would respond with ter- rorist attacks, as well as ramping up their support to the taliban and anti-american groups in iraq. ey might also encourage hamas and hizballah to be more aggres- sive toward israel. as best we can tell, the 1996 Khobar towers blast was an iranian response to an $18 million increase in the U.s. covert action budget against iran in 1994-1995. although that covert action program posed little threat to tehran at the time (and another $18 million was a pal- try sum for the United states), the iranians apparently saw it as a declaration of covert war and may have destroyed the Khobar towers complex (killing 19 american ser- vicemen) as a way of warning the United states of the consequences of such a cam- paign. Washington would have to assume that tehran would react in similar fashion if the United states were to launch a far more determined e ort than in the past.
if the United states commits to supporting an insurgent group, whether it is galvanized by ethnic, ideological, or political forces, it may have to make some very tough choices
72 Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack, ings Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War (Washington: Brookings institution Press, 2007), esp. pp. 35-37.
73 ibid., pp. 20-45.
at some point regarding how far it is willing to support that group. in particular, what if the regime o ers the United states ma- jor concessions in return for an american agreement to stop supporting the insurgen- cy? if Washington agrees, the insurgents would likely be slaughtered without the american aid, but how could Washington refuse if the iranians o er the United states something that would meet its ultimate ob- jectives concerning iran? in 1974-1975, the United states agreed to help iran support Kurdish insurgents ghting the Ba’thist re- gime in iraq. But in 1975, saddam husayn gave in to all the shah’s demands on terri- torial issues in return for iran pulling the plug on the Kurds (and since U.s. support was provided via iran, that terminated U.s. assistance as well). e shah agreed and the Kurds were massacred. alternatively, the United states could nd itself in a Bay of Pigs–like situation: the regime might crush
the insurgency despite american support, and then Washington would have to decide whether to intervene militarily to prevent a complete rout. either situation would pres- ent Washington with a hobson’s choice: the United states would lose no matter which course it took.
e only nonethnic opposition group that is organized, armed, and committed to ghting the regime is the MeK. however, as noted, the MeK has badly alienated the iranian population by its behavior over the years, and american support to the MeK might simply antagonize iranians toward the United states without meaningfully advancing U.s. interests. at the very least, if the United states commits itself to this course of action, Washington should insist that the MeK reform itself and demonstrate that it has rebuilt some degree of popularity in iran before taking up its cause.
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supporting a Military Move against the regime
Because the evidence suggests that it would be hard to move the iranian people to revolu- tion—even though this would be the best way to e ect real regime change—and because sup- porting an insurgency seems unlikely to achieve regime change quickly, if at all, some americans have explored the possibility of encouraging a military coup. a nation’s armed forces always have an intrinsic capability to depose the government, even if a strongly ingrained professional ethos makes it highly unlikely that they would do so. e iranian armed forces certainly have a much greater ability to unseat the current regime than any potential iranian insurgent group. Moreover, coups are typically more successful and easier to instigate and assist from abroad than popular rev- olutions. consequently, a military coup has ad- vantages where both the popular revolution and insurgency options have disadvantages.
Unfortunately, the notion of engineering a mili- tary coup in iran has its own disadvantages as well, and these are considerable. e iranian regime is well aware of the potential for a coup and has thoroughly politicized its various armed forces to minimize the chances. it has two complete mili- taries—the iranian armed Forces (Artesh) and the islamic revolutionary Guard corps (Sepah- e Pasdaran-e Enqilab-e Eslami)—which com- pete for the regime’s favor and are used to watch and balance each other. Beyond that, iran has a
pervasive intelligence and security apparatus that monitors all of its military personnel carefully for any signs of disloyalty or foreign contact that could be tip-o s of a future coup attempt. More- over, the United states has no o cial presence in iran, and the diplomats of U.s. allies in the country are closely watched by the iranian secu- rity services, making it di cult to contact irani- an military personnel to determine whether any might be interested in moving against the regime. indeed, for that reason, the United states has his- torically found the loyalty of the iranian armed forces di cult to judge. if the president were to order the cia to pursue this option, it is not clear where the folks at Langley would even start.
e ultimate goal of a policy of supporting a mili- tary coup against tehran would be to try to re- place the islamic republic with another govern- ment more amenable to american interests in the Middle east and central asia. in this sense, this policy option is considerably closer to the idea of instigating a popular revolution than it is to sup- porting an insurgency. Moreover, like fomenting a popular revolution, supporting a coup in iran would be di cult to use as a means of pressuring the regime to make compromises. it is the na- ture of coups that if the regime has any inkling that one is afoot, it will likely be able to crush it.
consequently, it is hard for an external power to use the threat of a coup as a form of pressure.74
e timing of a coup is di cult to gauge for two di erent reasons. First, it is impossible to know how long it would take to make contact with would-be coup plotters. as noted above, the United states does not have a diplomatic presence in iran, and it is hard for americans to travel the country easily—let alone to meet with members of the iranian armed forces. ere may well be o cers who would like to stage a coup, but U.s. agents may never come in contact with them. al- ternatively, it may be that there are not any, and the United states would have to hope that some might change their minds some time soon (or else nd a way to persuade them to do so). if there is no one ready to move against the regime, it is im- possible to predict when someone might be. and even if there are o cers ready to do so, it is im- possible to predict if and when the United states would be able to nd them.
if this hurdle can be overcome, it then becomes di cult to gauge when the coup would actually happen. inevitably, the timing of a coup is almost entirely determined by the plotters themselves, as they are in the best position to know when they will be ready and when the regime would be vul- nerable. it is extremely di cult for an outside power to order up a coup on a speci c date—al- though the outside power can certainly have input into that decision, especially if it is to provide di- rect support of some kind before, during, or a er the coup itself. typically, coups take some time to prepare as the cabal will want to recruit support- ers, conduct reconnaissance, and plan the opera- tion and its possible contingencies. a cabal that
waits too long typically is exposed and rounded up by the regime. Plotters that do not take enough time to prepare o en fail in the execution and are killed or arrested by the regime. e problem is that there is no mathematical formula to deter- mine how much recruitment, reconnaissance, and planning is just right. us, even a er the coup plotters have been identi ed and contacted, it may take weeks, months, or even years for them to pull the trigger.
overview of the Policy
Mounting a coup is hard work, especially in a state as paranoid about foreign in uence and meddling as iran is. e United states would rst have to make contact with members of iran’s military (and likely its security services as well). is by itself is very di cult. Because of iranian hypersensitivity to americans, the United states would likely have to rely on “cutouts”—third party nationals working on behalf of the United states—which invariably introduces considerable complexity. en the United states would have to use those contacts to try to identify iranian mili- tary personnel who were both willing and able to stage a coup, which would be more di cult still; it would be hard enough for americans to make contact with iranian military o cers, let alone make contact with those speci c individuals will- ing to risk their lives and their families in a coup attempt. of course, it is possible that if Washing- ton makes very clear that it is trying to support a coup in iran, the coup plotters will reach out to the United states. But this is very rare: history shows that coup plotters willing to expose them- selves to another national government are usu- ally discovered and killed; furthermore, most of those coming to the United states to ask for help overthrowing this or that government tend to be
74 it is not impossible to do so, just very hard. e foreign power can use a known propensity to support any coup plot against the regime as an indiscriminate threat, which the regime might want to see ended by making concessions to the foreign power. eoretically, all this is possible, but since it is much easier to snu out coup plots than to instigate them, in practice, this would be di cult to accomplish.
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poseurs or even counterintelligence agents of the targeted government.
in truth, the most successful coup plots are those that do not require much, if any, outside assis- tance because they then have the least risk of ex- posure. since plotters must be secretive in order to prevent the government from preempting the coup, they should be small in number. to suc- ceed, once a coup is launched, it requires that the plotters seize power rapidly. ey must then either quickly win the support of potential rivals or neutralize them, o en by consolidating control before any opposition can organize. Military and security forces whose leaders are not part of the plot must already be sympathetic, or if they are not, their leaders must be co-opted or arrested in order to prevent them from reversing the coup.
although many coups are homegrown, one obvi- ous historic model of a foreign-assisted coup in iran is operation ajax, the 1953 coup d’état that overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq and reinstated the rule of shah reza Pahlavi. to carry out the coup, the cia and British intelligence supported General Fazlollah Zahedi, providing him and his followers with money and propaganda, as well as helping organize their activities.75
to engineer a coup today, the United states could play multiple roles. intelligence o cials could identify military and security service o cers to recruit and help them communicate securely. U.s. money could suborn potentially disloyal o cers. During the coup itself, U.s. clandestine media could broadcast misinformation to con- fuse regime loyalists and try to bolster popular support for the plotters. in addition, U.s. elec- tronic warfare can be used to disrupt the regime’s communications and thus paralyze its response.
as with supporting an insurgency, a critical ques- tion that Washington would have to decide be- forehand is whether the United states would be willing to provide direct military assistance to the coup plotters—either to save them from annihila- tion or to deliver the coup de grace if it seemed they were doing well but needed something to put them over the top. Because military forces would need to be in place beforehand, this could not be decided on the y, during the coup. of course, readying forces around iran could tip o the re- gime, which creates one potential disincentive. another is that military support could undermine the legitimacy of the coup plotters if they appeared to be foreign puppets rather than homegrown na- tionalists. Moreover, direct military support could involve the United states in a war with iran if the coup attempt fails, raising all of the liabilities of the various military options. on the other hand, be- cause iranian security is so formidable, a coup plot might need some outside assistance to succeed.
e key to this policy option is knowing whom to support and how. is requires a thorough un- derstanding of iran’s military and security forces, not just in terms of their weaponry, organization, and doctrine, but the much more subtle areas of personal and institutional relationships (which determine who might support a coup by any giv- en o cer or group of o cers), personal histories (which can indicate who holds a grievance against the regime), and standard operating procedures (deviation from which will tip o the regime).
Ultimately, understanding iran’s military and se- curity forces in this way is vital for two distinct reasons. First, members of the military are best positioned to carry out a coup and topple the regime. second, other forms of resistance are
75 see, among others, Kermit roosevelt, Countercoup: e Struggle for the Control of Iran (New York: McGraw-hill, 1979); stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men. An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and sons, 2003).
likely to falter if the military and security forces rmly back the regime.
iran’s military, however, has been e ectively “coup proofed” by the clerical regime.76 a er the revolu- tion, the new leadership saw the military as the bastion of the shah’s rule. several aborted coups in the early years of the revolution also increased suspicion of the military as an institution. in re- sponse, the regime shot or dismissed many o - cers, while others ed into exile. a er this purge, the regime exercised tremendous control over the leaders of the regular armed forces, vetting them carefully for loyalty and monitoring their activi- ties. in addition, the regime created a parallel mil- itary—the islamic revolutionary Guard corps (irGc)—with a dual mission of ghting internal as well as external foes of the revolution. today, key facilities and areas are guarded by irGc forc- es, not by the regular military. irGc members, in particular, are a crucial component of the younger conservatives who form the bastion of the current order. Given this recent history and the compe- tition from the irGc, the regular military is, if anything, even more a pillar of the regime. as dis- sent appeared to increase in the 1990s with sever- al demonstrations, security forces wavered when confronting unrest. since then, the clerical lead- ership reorganized the military and law enforce- ment services to ensure their loyalty in the event of popular unrest. special units have been created with leaders carefully vetted for their loyalty.
What all of this means is that the critical require- ment of this option is superb intelligence on the iranian armed forces.
as explained in chapter 6 with regard to foment- ing a popular revolution, successful meddling in
the internal a airs of another country requires excellent intelligence if the e orts are to suc- ceed. indeed, a lack of intelligence can even lead a covert action program to back re, as the regime manipulates it to its advantage. For a coup, the United states would need a sense of the loyalties of di erent unit commanders, knowledge of the key points of communication that must be seized or neutralized, and an understanding of regime counterintelligence measures, among other fac- tors. Without this information, the United states may back the wrong people or be beguiled by g- ures who are secretly controlled by iranian intel- ligence.
iran also has multiple centers of power, which would make a coup far harder to pull o than in 1953. in addition to parallel militaries, iran’s eco- nomic and political institutions overlap in their areas of responsibility. is multiplicity makes it di cult to strike a quick and decisive blow to seize power. Knowing which centers are the most important would greatly aid this e ort.
as explained earlier, it appears that the neces- sary level of detailed intelligence on iran is sim- ply not there. Because the United states has no embassy and has few iran experts within gov- ernment ranks, information on the country’s in- credibly complex politics is o en inadequate or inaccurate. Much of the information the United states requires involves an understanding of iran’s remote areas (for example, Baluchistan) or is dif- cult to obtain comprehensively, such as the loy- alty of various unit commanders. consequently, any plan to aid a coup would rst require a major e ort to build up american intelligence on iran, which would itself be time consuming and di - cult given the inherent nature of iranian society and the paranoia of the regime.
76 e term “coup proo ng” was invented by James Quinlivan. see James Quinlivan, “coup Proo ng: its Practice and consequences in the Middle east,” International Security 24, no. 2 (Fall 1999): pp. 131-165.
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Pros and Cons
e following are the advantages and disadvantag- es of supporting a military coup.
Because the iranian military has power of its own, a coup d’état would conceivably require the least support from the United states. Washington could mostly leave it to the iranian cabal to summon the power to topple the regime, and in theory, it should be capable of doing so. Based on the history of other coups, both in iran and elsewhere, the United states might only have to pro- vide some money, communications assis- tance, and some specialized gear.
even a failed coup plot might make the regime fearful—and in so doing, make it more willing to cooperate—or simply cause it to focus internally, lessening its mischief making abroad.
in theory, if the coup plotters succeeded, they would feel grateful to the United states, and so there would be some reasonable expecta- tion of a better relationship between a new government in tehran and Washington.
Because of iranian
there is a high likelihood that the regime would uncover the coup plot and kill all of the participants to discourage anyone else contemplating such a step. is would end up strengthening the regime—the oppo- site of what the United states had hoped to achieve.
attempting to foment a coup would re- quire a much more intimate understanding
of the iranian o cer corps than the United states currently possesses, and it would be di cult to improve this quickly given ira- nian security measures. indeed, if ordered to implement this option today, it is not clear that the U.s. intelligence community would even know where to start.
ere is little evidence to suggest wide- spread disa ection against the regime among the security services, or that there are numbers of o cers willing to move against it. if anything, based on the very limited information that the outside world has about the iranian military, it appears that the iranian armed Forces and the is- lamic revolutionary Guard corps compete for the regime’s favor.
a military coup backed by the United states could play very badly among the iranian people at large. it might appear to be “1953 redux” and trigger a backlash against both the new government and the United states.
Moreover, it seems unlikely that a military coup would bring a democratic govern- ment to power. e United states might be replacing an unfriendly autocracy with a friendly one, but this would hardly endear it to the region or the rest of the world, and one lesson that the United states has learned from the iranian revolution (among other events) is that supporting autocrats tends to undermine american interests over the long term.
if the iranians become aware of american e orts to instigate a coup plot, they would likely retaliate against the United states, potentially in all the ways and against all of the locations discussed in association with previous options.
DeterriNG tehraN containment
it seems tting that discussion of the contain- ment option would come last in this survey of U.s. policy options toward iran, because con- tainment is always america’s last policy choice. When a state proves too hostile for engagement or a diplomatic compromise, when it is too strong to be invaded or otherwise attacked, and when it is too repressive to be overthrown, only then does the United states opt to contain it as best it can.
to a great extent, containment has been the de- fault U.s. policy toward iran since the islamic rev- olution because Washington failed with the other options—at least to the extent it tried them. carter, reagan, Bush 41, and clinton all attempted to en- gage iran and failed. carter, Bush 41, clinton, and Bush 43 held out the prospect of a diplomatic com- promise of one sort or another without any luck either. clinton and Bush 43 also tried to aid ira- nian oppositionists in the hope of bringing reform to tehran. No american administration has ever employed military force against iran as a deliber- ate policy, although the reagan administration de- ployed the U.s. Navy to the Persian Gulf in 1987- 1988, at the height of the iran-iraq War, to escort Kuwaiti oil tankers. is resulted in several skir- mishes between U.s. and iranian forces, but in the nal analysis, these were all provoked by tehran.
amid all of these di erent e orts to engage, nego- tiate with, and even redirect the iranian regime,
the constant in U.s. policy toward iran over the past 30 years has been containment. rough- out this period, none of the other policy options gained any purchase with the iranian regime, although, in truth, they were o en applied in a ham- sted or half-hearted manner. as such, the United states and its allies did as much as they could to limit iran’s ability to support violent ex- tremist groups, subvert friendly governments, de- velop weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and otherwise undermine the Middle eastern status quo. e long list of unilateral sanctions applied by the United states against iran from 1979 on- wards was a critical element of that policy (al- though it was also meant to try to change tehran’s behavior). so, too, were U.s. e orts to discourage arms sales, trade, and investment with iran by other countries. except for those moments when Washington was attempting to engage the iranian regime, the United states typically was trying to isolate it—diplomatically, economically, militar- ily, and in every other way conceivable.
e success of containment during this period was uneven. iran today seems a more powerful and disruptive force in the international rela- tions of the Middle east than it has been since the early days of the revolution. Given that contain- ment sought to achieve the opposite, these results alone suggest that containment failed. But as al- ways with iran, there is more to it than that. First,
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iran’s apparent strength across the region is more a product of american mistakes than its own ac- tual puissance or cleverness. e United states eliminated iran’s two most threatening neigh- bors—saddam husayn in iraq and the taliban in afghanistan—and le power vacuums that allowed the iranians to assert considerable in u- ence where they previously had little. similarly, american missteps in Lebanon, syria, and else- where, as well as in dealing with the Palestinians, have diminished the power and freedom of action of the United states (and its allies) and handed iran apparent victories at little cost.
second, iran’s “strength” is mostly a façade. iran’s armed forces remain relatively weak, with little ability to project power beyond iran’s borders or thwart an israeli or american military opera- tion. Because of this, iran is fortunate that it sim- ply does not face any real conventional military threats other than those from the United states and israel.
But its luck does not extend much further. Politi- cally, the islamic regime seems less and less pop- ular, and increasing numbers of internal ssures appear each year. additionally, its economy is a disaster. With in ation and unemployment soaring, non-oil imports and currency reserves evaporating, worker productivity and oil ex- ports declining, and a government unwilling to take the drastic steps necessary to get out of its current predicament, iran’s future seems dark. since economics underpins all other aspects of national power over the long term, this does not bode well for iran’s role in the region either. e iranian regime could survive for decades more,
but its eventual demise seems increasingly likely, and in the near term, political fractiousness con- tributes to its di culty in taking decisive action abroad.
although iran’s own failings and mistakes have been the most important reason for its internal decline, containment also played a role. it is dif- cult to ascertain exactly how much the sanctions were responsible for iran’s economic decay, but they played a part, and many iranians believe that they continue to play a major role.77 e sanc- tions limited iran’s ability to build up its military strength, to become a major economic player, or employ its vast oil and natural gas reserves in the diplomatic realm, and to garner allies willing and able to help it achieve its goals. in short, contain- ment may not have achieved its maximal objec- tives, but it seems to have achieved more than its minimal goals.
For all of these reasons, a policy of containment toward iran is present in the debate like the pro- verbial elephant in the living room. some analysts and experts have suggested that the United states should simply adopt a strengthened form of con- tainment as its policy toward iran. Many others leave it as the unspoken but well understood fall- back option—that if their preferred policy fails or is not adopted, the United states would be le with no choice but to fall back on containment. although we do see containment as a viable fall- back position for the United states, this section examines it by asking the question, “if the United states were to decide to eschew all of the alterna- tives and pursue a deliberate policy of contain- ment toward iran, what would that entail?”
77 see for example, Laura secor, “Letter from tehran: e rationalist,” New Yorker, February 9, 2009, esp. pp. 36-38.
accePtiNG the UNaccePtaBLe containment
as in the past, containment may become the U.s. policy of last resort toward iran. if Washington is once again unable to persuade tehran to give up its nuclear program and its oth- er problematic behaviors, if it is unable or unwill- ing to try to overthrow the regime, if it chooses not to invade or if it chooses not to use airstrikes or to encourage the israelis to do so, then it may nd itself dusting o and applying a policy of containment toward iran.78 indeed, there seems to be an implicit assumption in many of the argu- ments made by americans about iran policy that if one of the diplomatic or regime change options cannot be made to work soon, then Washington will have no choice but to adopt either contain- ment or one of the military options.
The Threat of a Nuclear Iran
of course, what is implicit in the admission that the United states may have to resort to contain- ment or one of the military options if all else fails is that these two approaches are disastrously (and perhaps equally) bad alternatives. e drawbacks
of the various military options have already been discussed in chapters 3 through 5, and they are certainly signi cant. in the case of containment, the reason that this option is considered so unpal- atable is that it would mean accepting an iranian nuclear weapons capability and possibly an ira- nian nuclear arsenal. containment makes no ef- fort to prevent iran from acquiring the capability but instead simply attempts to prevent iran from causing trouble beyond its borders—both directly and indirectly—by trying to keep iran weak and, well, contained. consequently, a critical element in concluding whether to pursue containment is determining the level of risk that the United states and its allies would face from an iran armed with nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, this is an unknowable judgment call. ere is no formula, no foolproof informa- tion that could provide an objective, de nitive an- swer. erefore, policymakers will have to make their own judgment about the extent of the threat.
in pondering this issue, policymakers should consider at least six potential threats to the United
78 as the conclusion discusses, an air campaign against iran’s nuclear sites would likely have to be coupled with a containment strategy—before, during, and especially a er the strikes. containment would be necessary to hinder iran from reconstituting its nuclear program, prevent it from retaliating against the United states and its allies, and to deal with iran’s support for violent extremist groups and other anti-status quo activities. Moreover, the United states would have to do so in a situation where many of the other options (particularly the diplomatic ones) will likely be impossible because of the political fallout from the strikes.
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states that stem from iran’s possession of nuclear weapons:
1. Would the Iranians use them? e rst and most obvious threat is the possibility that if iran acquires nuclear weapons, it would use them. in military parades, iran has draped shahab-3 missiles with banners reading “israel must be wiped o the pages of history”; the headquarters of iran’s Basij mobilization forces have a huge banner (in both english and Farsi) over the entrance quoting President ahmadinejad’s infa- mous remark that “israel should be wiped out of the face of the world”; and ahma- dinejad and other iranian leaders have said any number of things indicating that they would like to see the end of the Jew- ish state.79 e saudi oil elds, american bases in the Persian Gulf region, and a va- riety of other high-value targets are also all within range of iranian ballistic missiles and hence vulnerable to attack if iran were willing to employ nuclear weapons.
2. Would they give nuclear weapons to ter- rorists? iran has a long history of support- ing violent extremist groups that employ terrorism—hizballah in Lebanon (and elsewhere around the world), hamas and Palestinian islamic Jihad in Pales- tine, Jaysh al-Mahdi and even al-Qa’ida in iraq, the taliban in afghanistan, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in turkey, and numerous others.80 Virtually all of these groups—not coincidentally—attack american allies, and a number have killed americans with the knowledge, encour- agement, and even occasional guidance
of tehran. erefore, some americans fear that while tehran itself might not use nuclear weapons for fear of retaliation, it would be willing to give them to terror- ists in hope of achieving the regime’s aims while maintaining plausible deniability.
3. Unconstrained asymmetric warfare. a far more common concern about iran’s ac- quisition of nuclear weapons is that once tehran has a nuclear weapons capability, it would become even more aggressive, believing that it is e ectively immune to any military retaliation by any other state (including the United states). is was es- sentially how Pakistan responded once it detonated nuclear weapons in 1998, lead- ing to the 1999 Kargil crisis in which india and Pakistan nearly came to blows over islamabad’s outrageous terrorist campaign against india over Kashmir.
4. Israeli preemption. e israelis share all of the above fears, although there is a range of opinion about the threat. Nevertheless, if israel believed that the United states and the rest of the international community were not going to try to prevent iran from acquiring a nuclear capability and were simply going to accept it and try to contain a nuclear-armed iran, Jerusalem might de- cide that it had to act unilaterally to pre- clude any of the above risks. although israeli leaders seem to be well aware of the drawbacks of an israeli airstrike against the iranian nuclear sites (as described in chapter 5), one cannot assume that they will not calculate that the payo could be worth the cost.
79 Joshua teitelbaum, “What iranian Leaders really say about Doing away with israel: a refutation of the campaign to excuse ahmadinejad’s incitement to Genocide,” Jerusalem center for Public a airs, 2008, available at <http://www.jcpa.org/text/ahmadinejad2-words.pdf>, downloaded on February 9, 2009.
80 Daniel Byman, Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism (London: cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 79-80.
5. Proliferation. Few of iran’s neighbors would be happy to see it acquire nuclear weapons or even the capability to produce such weapons. other states might decide that they need the same to ensure their ability to deter tehran on their own, with- out having to rely on any other country to do so for them. saudi arabia and the United arab emirates have already made ominous noises suggesting that they would respond in this fashion, and given their oil wealth, this is a realistic prospect. turkey, egypt, and other countries might decide to go down the same path. a half- dozen or more nuclear arsenals in the Middle east have the potential to spark new crises in the region, and to make all Middle eastern crises far more dangerous than they already are.
6. e death knell of the NPT. Because so many of its neighbors do see iran as a threat, at least some may attempt to ac- quire nuclear weapons of their own to balance or deter iran. is trend will get a further boost from the fact that iran’s ac- quisition of a nuclear weapons capability will probably be the nails in the co n of the global non-proliferation regime and the Non-Proliferation treaty. a er all, if a country like iran—which is widely seen as a rogue, and whom all of the great powers, including russia and china, have explicit- ly stated cannot be allowed to acquire this capability—nevertheless does so, and does so without paying an exorbitant price, oth- er countries will rightly calculate that they will face even fewer international penalties for doing the same.
e last four of these potential problems arising from iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons ca- pability are not merely judgments but potentially also challenges for U.s. diplomacy and military
policy as part of the containment option, and so they are treated later in this chapter. e rst two, however, are simply questions of judgment that must be addressed before the United states adopts the containment policy. if it seems likely (or even just reasonably probable) that iran would use nuclear weapons or give them to terrorist groups once it gets them, then an option that employs containment would be a foolish policy. ere is no way that the United states could prevent teh- ran from doing either once the iranians achieved the capability; the most Washington could do would be to crush the iranians for having done so a er the fact. so if americans believe that there is a signi cant risk that iran would use a nuclear weapon unprovoked or give one to terrorists, that judgment needs to be reached before acquiesc- ing to an iranian nuclear weapons capability. and it should drive Washington in the direction of adopting one (or more) of the other options to try to preclude this eventuality.
Ultimately, a judgment on these issues rests on the simple question, “can iran be deterred?” af- ter all, it is not enough to simply assert that a na- tion is aggressive, anti-american, and supports violent extremist groups, even violent extrem- ists who attack the United states. e same could have been said about the soviet Union under sta- lin and Khrushchev, castro’s cuba, and North Korea throughout its existence, yet the United states found them deterrable. in turn, this ques- tion rests on an assessment of whether the iranian regime is so reckless and heedless of the potential consequences (either because it is indi erent to such costs or has shown a propensity to miscalcu- late the likelihood of paying them) that it would take actions like these that would risk massive re- taliation from the United states, israel, or another nuclear-armed country.
Unfortunately, it is hard to arrive at such an assess- ment objectively or de nitively. on the one hand, iranian leaders have consistently shown prudence
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and a relatively low threshold for suicidal risk. in 1988, ayatollah Khomeini agreed to end the iran- iraq War long before any iranian population cen- ters were threatened with conquest by iraqi (or american) forces. in 1996-1997, when iranian support for terrorist groups and terrorist actions in Lebanon, saudi arabia, Bahrain, and Germany had created the risk of conventional attack by the United states and/or multilateral sanctions, iran reined in its asymmetric warfare operations. sim- ilarly, in iraq in 2007-2008, when iranian-backed shi’i militias began to lose heavily, the iranians refrained from escalating their support, prob- ably in part out of concern that doing so would provoke direct american military action against them. Likewise, although iran has had WMDs (chemical warfare agents and probably biological warfare agents as well) since 1988 and has sup- ported various terrorist groups since 1979, it has never sought to mix the two—almost certainly because tehran believes that in the event of a terrorist attack with WMDs, the targeted nation (and/or its allies) would dispense with the nice- ties of “plausible deniability” and strike with over- whelming force against whomever provided these weapons.81
Nevertheless, there is other evidence to the con- trary. ahmadinejad’s outrageous threats tend to belie any sense of prudence in tehran, although it is worth noting that he is not iran’s ultimate decisionmaker on national security issues and that ayatollah Khamene’i, who is the decision- maker, has made speeches speci cally meant to undercut ahmadinejad’s more bellicose rhetoric. still, other iranian leaders have made statements that are almost as outrageous as ahmadine- jad’s. For instance, in 2002, former president ali
akbar hashemi rafsanjani explained that, “is- rael is much smaller than iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack.” he went on to point out that a nuclear attack on israel would obliterate the state, but the israeli re- taliation would only cause “damage” to the much larger Muslim world.82 iran’s support for terrorist attacks on U.s. assets—such as the Marine bar- racks blast in Beirut in 1983, Khobar towers in 1996, and the many explosively formed projec- tiles dispatched to iraqi militias and the taliban in afghanistan since 2005—all certainly count as aggressive, lethal attacks on americans that ran some risk of U.s. retaliation.83
us, even if the evidence tends to suggest that iran is prudent and averse to su ering cata- strophic damage (and therefore deterrable), it is impossible to be certain. But there was no guar- antee that deterrence would work with the soviet Union either; that, too, was a risk that the United states chose to run because the cost of the alter- natives (particularly a military “rollback” of the soviet Union) were so horri c that the risk of deterrence failing still seemed like the safer bet by comparison. containment of iran only makes sense if the leadership of the United states reach- es the same conclusion about the risks and costs when it comes to iran.
e goal of a containment strategy toward iran is to prevent tehran from harming american in- terests in the Middle east and central asia, pref- erably while minimizing the costs to the United states. it is intended to prevent iran from sup- porting violent extremist groups, subverting
81 For more on all of these points and a more detailed explication on the notion that the iranian regime is probably deterrable, see Kenneth M. Pollack, e Persian Puzzle: e Con ict between Iran and America (New York: random house, 2004), esp. pp. 275-425.
82 Jerusalem Report, March 11, 2002.
83 an explosively formed projectile is a particularly deadly type of improvised explosive design that can penetrate armored vehicles. Many
such weapons were provided to various iraqi militias and insurgents beginning in about 2005, and to the taliban and other Pashtun groups in afghanistan beginning in 2008. e United states military has gathered extensive evidence demonstrating that these devices were manufactured in iran and provided by the iranian revolutionary Guard corps to the iraqis and afghans.
friendly governments, or otherwise destabilizing the region. Militarily, it would aim to deter any overt iranian aggression or use of WMDs. Diplo- matically, it would seek to prevent iran from de- veloping allies or proxies abroad. economically, it would attempt to keep iran as weak as possible to ease the military and diplomatic burdens.
Ultimately, this goal puts containment in a very di erent category from all of the other policy options. it does not seek to change the iranian regime’s policies, except that by preventing iran from doing much damage, containment may eventually convince tehran to give up the ght. it does not seek to eliminate the iranian nuclear program and assumes that iran’s possession of a nuclear weapons capability is inevitable. it does not seek to overthrow the iranian regime, except that by preventing tehran from achieving its more grandiose ambitions and by maintaining punish- ing sanctions, containment may foment popular resentment and hasten the end of the regime.
containment has the easiest time frame of all. e United states could adopt it immediately, and in theory, it could last for the life of the re- gime—as long as it does not fail catastrophically, with iran lashing out in some way that proved ex- tremely harmful to american interests and thus necessitating the adoption of another, probably far more aggressive option against tehran, such as airstrikes or an invasion.
overview of the Policy
in some ways, containment may also be the easiest policy option toward iran to conceptual- ize, both because it is e ectively what the United states has pursued for most of the past 30 years and because it would be roughly congruent with how the United states contained the soviet Union during the cold War, and has contained a host
of other antipathetic regimes such as cuba and North Korea. as with containment of the so- viet Union, a policy of containment toward iran would attempt to keep it as weak as possible and prevent it from making gains abroad, in the ex- pectation that the regime’s dysfunctions would ultimately bring about its demise.
however, because the nature of iranian power, in uence, and aggression di ers fundamentally from that of the former soviet Union, so, too, would the nature of its containment. With the so- viet Union, “containment” was a literal descrip- tion of Washington’s goal in seeking to prevent Moscow from using its conventional military might to conquer countries that bordered the soviet bloc and integrate them into it. iran has little conventional military power and instead has tried to rely on subversion, support to insurgen- cies and terrorists, and the abetting of revolutions and coups in nearby countries, hoping to bring to power governments friendly to tehran. conse- quently, in the case of iran, “containment” would be more gurative than literal. it would attempt to prevent iran from doing what it would like (rather than attempting to change either the ira- nian regime or its behavior) and ensure that iran would not make gains anywhere it sought to.
a containment policy toward iran would consist of ve broad categories of activity against the is- lamic republic, intended to keep it weak and pre- vent it from creating problems elsewhere in the Middle east and central asia:
Military. Because of the nature of iranian power, the military dimension of contain- ment is important but not as critical as it was in containing the soviet Union, whose principal means of international in uence was its conventional military might. e United states would have to ensure that iran was not able to use its armed forces to intimidate or conquer other countries,
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something that would not be di cult given the small size of the iranian military. e U.s. armed forces may also need to be in a position to retaliate against the iranians should they take actions that crossed an american “red line.”
Strategic. e policy option of containment makes no e ort to prevent iran from acquir- ing nuclear weapons, and so it implicitly as- sumes that iran may well acquire at least a weapons capability at some point in time. once this becomes the case, the United states would have to deter iran from using the weapons or from taking aggressive ac- tions that would threaten U.s. vital interests.
economic. e United states would seek to keep iran economically weak to prevent it from generating the military capacity or buying the diplomatic support to under- mine the containment regime.
Diplomatic. e United states would have to maintain a confederation of countries, starting with iran’s neighbors and the other great powers, to help Washington contain iran. is could entail contributing mili- tary forces to prevent iranian moves, but it would more likely focus on keeping pres- sure on the iranian economy, combating iranian subversion and support for violent extremists, and otherwise blocking teh- ran’s own moves.
Counterterrorism. since containment makes no provision to eliminate the iranian regime—or even much of an e ort to keep the regime preoccupied with its domestic problems—the United states would have to expect iran to ratchet up its support for violent extremist groups to try break out of the containment “box,” possibly by over- throwing one or more of the governments
cooperating with the United states against it. to deal with that, the United states would need to organize a coordinated counterterrorism and counterintelligence e ort to prevent iranian agents from doing much damage.
if the course of action envisioned by a policy of containment is relatively straightforward, the re- quirements of that policy are quite the opposite. When it comes to containment, it is the require- ments that are daunting. ey span the range of foreign policy endeavors, entail complex interac- tions, and require considerable international sup- port.
as already described, a key feature of contain- ment would be strong sanctions against iran to keep it weak and to hinder its ability to take ac- tions harmful to american interests. is is not quite a requirement because it is possible to imag- ine containing iran without any sanctions what- soever. During the cold War, the soviet bloc was simply too big and resource rich to be e ectively sanctioned, and yet the United states and its allies kept it more or less contained for 45 years. still, the coordinating committee for Multilateral export controls (the Western sanctions regime against the soviet bloc) was helpful in denying the sovi- ets and their allies technology and hard currency, which le them weaker and hence easier to block. similarly, there is no question that crippling sanc- tions against iran would be extremely useful and would greatly ease the burden of containment. Moreover, iran has nothing like the resources of the communist bloc, and given the weakness of its economy, defense industries, technological base, and conventional forces, e ective sanctions against iran could prove devastating, making the job of containing it in nitely easier.
136 WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
consequently, the most useful sanctions to help the containment option would include:
a ban on military sales to iran, to keep its conventional and nuclear forces weak and small;
a ban on high-technology sales to iran, both to hinder its indigenous military de- velopment and cause stagnation in its eco- nomic base;
restrictions on trade and investment, to exacerbate the country’s economic prob- lems and thereby stoke domestic dissent at home—thus making it harder for iran to act aggressively abroad—and to further undermine the economic basis of iranian military and diplomatic strength;
restrictions on the travel of iranian per- sonnel abroad, preferably accompanied by similar constraints on iranian air lines, to hinder the ability of iranian intelligence personnel to wage asymmetric warfare;
restrictions on the transfer of hard curren- cy to iran, which the regime needs for arms and technology purchases, intelligence op- erations, and support of violent extremist groups; and
restrictions on the purchase and sale of ira- nian oil and natural gas, not to choke them o altogether but to impose a surcharge on them to diminish the amount of revenue the iranian state derives from them.
since the United states already has sanctions covering every one of these activities, the real challenge for american diplomacy in pursuit of a containment option toward iran would be to convince as many other countries as possible— particularly iran’s major trading partners in
europe, russia, china, east asia, and india—to follow suit.
Conventional Military requirements
Given the weakness of iranian conventional forces, especially compared to the strength of the ameri- can military, this should not be an overly onerous requirement. e United states has typically found that a relatively small naval presence in the Persian Gulf—one carrier, a half-dozen surface combatants, a couple of submarines, and some minesweepers and other specialized cra —coupled with about a wing of strike and support aircra deployed ashore have been more than adequate to deal with most potential iranian scenarios. in times of crisis, and especially if iran ever attempted to close the strait of hormuz, more forces would be needed. Depend- ing on the scenario, reinforcements might include another aircra carrier or two, and/or another one to two wings of strike and support aircra ashore, along with twice as many subs and surface combat- ants, and perhaps as many as a dozen minesweep- ers. such a force ought to be able to obliterate ira- nian air and naval defenses in the strait of hormuz, clear any mines, and even raze iranian military in- stallations along its littoral (if that were desired) in a matter of weeks, or even days.
Given the weakness of iranian ground forces, it seems unlikely that tehran would attempt to at- tack any of its neighbors, especially those most important to american interests. turkey is a member of Nato, and the iranians have shown no inclination to provoke the entire atlantic al- liance against them. as long as the United states has 30,000-60,000 troops in afghanistan and maintains some military personnel in iraq (even as advisers, trainers, logistical support personnel, and the like), it is equally hard to imagine iran invading either of those countries. if the regime embarked on a major program to build up its ground and air forces, the United states might
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want to commensurately support those of iraq and turkey—or might want to look into basing american ground forces (or merely their equip- ment) at prepositioned sites near iran’s borders. however, iran would require at least ve—per- haps as many as ten—years to acquire the abil- ity to threaten either turkey or american forces in the region. currently, Pakistan is a mess, but its ground and air forces are probably at least as capable as those of iran, and it possesses nuclear weapons, which are likely to deter any large-scale iranian aggression.
at present—and therefore, for the foreseeable fu- ture—the only real geographically weak link in the conventional military containment of iran lies to its north. as weak as iran is, the states of the caucasus and central asia are weaker still. if tehran chose, iran’s armed forces probably could do so some real damage there. however, the Unit- ed states has few vital interests in either region, and it is not clear whether iranian aggression there would bene t iran or bog it down. con- sequently, if the United states felt the need to de- ter an iranian attack on these countries, it should look to reestablish bases such as those in azer- baijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan that it used during the invasion of afghanistan. again, if the United states felt it necessary to deter an iranian conventional military attack on these countries, it might be necessary to build up american forces there—or create an infrastructure to allow the rapid deployment of U.s. forces—because suc- cessful “extended deterrence” is o en determined by the immediate balance of forces more than the overall correlation of forces.
Because the containment option assumes that iran will eventually acquire a nuclear weapons ca- pability and potentially an actual nuclear arsenal, the far more challenging military requirement is dealing with the nuclear threat from tehran.
historically, di erent states have responded di er- ently to the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal. some became more conservative in their foreign rela- tions, but others became more aggressive. ere was soviet bullying under Khrushchev, the chi- nese picking a ght with Moscow over their com- mon border in the late 1960s, and Pakistan reck- lessly escalating its terrorism campaign against india in Kashmir in the late 1990s and early 2000s. is greater aggressiveness has tended to lead to crises with other nuclear powers: the various Berlin crises and the 1962 cuban Missile crisis (as well as the 1956 sinai-suez crisis) between the United states and soviet Union, the 1969 si- no-soviet border clashes, and the Kargil con ict between india and Pakistan in 1999. iranian for- eign policy is already fairly aggressive, and so the United states would have to be prepared that teh- ran’s acquisition of some sort of nuclear capability would likely exacerbate this preexisting condition.
e lessons of the cold War o er the best meth- ods to deal with the potential for iranian aggres- siveness and the risk that it could spark a nuclear confrontation. e United states would have to make very clear to iran what it regards as its vital interests. Washington would have to spell out “red lines” that, if crossed by iran, would prompt the United states to respond with force—potentially including the use of american nuclear weapons. Where possible and where the interests were most vital, the United states would likely want american troops on the ground, either to defend the interest and so make it unnecessary to escalate to nuclear use, or simply to force iranian leaders to calculate that any attack could involve combat with ameri- can troops, which in turn could provoke ameri- can escalation. Finally, the cold War demonstrated that when two nuclear powers have interests (and military forces protecting those interests) in close proximity, it is important to communicate clearly to avoid mishaps, defuse tense situations, and work out measures that reduce the likelihood of prob- lems between them more generally.
Nevertheless, following this course of action with tehran could be far more di cult than it was with Moscow. e iranian political system is far more Byzantine, unpredictable, and prone to misinterpretation of american actions (and words) than the soviet system was. is places a premium on establishing clear, reliable channels of communication with tehran. Washington must be able to tell tehran what it is doing and why, and to warn the iranians, with the absolute minimum of distortion, when they are threaten- ing an american interest or about to cross a red line. e swiss channel that the United states has used in the past is inadequate for this re- quirement because (o en well-meaning) swiss diplomats have at times “interpreted” or “spun” messages passed through them to t what they believed should happen, typically leading to un- pleasant outcomes. iranian diplomats are o en highly professional, intelligent, and competent; they would be good conduits for explaining ac- tions or sending clear signals to the regime. however, even they are at times marginalized or ignored by the senior leadership, making them a good, but imperfect, channel.
other Diplomatic requirements
Beyond the diplomatic requirements for an ef- fective sanctions regime as discussed above, the containment option demands at least two other major diplomatic undertakings. e rst is meet- ing the basing requirements for the forces needed to deter iranian conventional aggression and to serve as trip wires and enforce red lines. is may be easy if the United states can extend its arrange- ments with countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, Qa- tar, and oman, which actually see advantages in hosting american military bases. however, if the United states sees a need to base forces in saudi arabia, the caucasus, central asia, and/or Paki- stan—all of which have political reasons to avoid having american troops on their soil—the state Department will have its work cut out for it.
Paradoxically, the fact that the United states would be making no e ort to prevent iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might make some of these states more willing to host american forces as a reassurance against iranian aggression. how- ever, other countries may reach the exact oppo- site conclusion. in particular, these countries may (correctly) see the greatest threat from iran as its support of revolutionaries and insurgents, rather than the possibility it will wage a conventional at- tack. For them, the presence of american military forces may be more of a problem than a reassur- ance because it would feed domestic grievances and support oppositionist claims that the national leadership is a puppet of Washington.
e second diplomatic requirement follows from the rst: the need to dampen nuclear pro- liferation in the Middle east and central asia. especially if oil-rich countries like saudi arabia and/or the United arab emirates opt simply to buy nuclear weapons outright (from the Paki- stanis, North Koreans, or who knows who else), the United states could nd nuclear arsenals sprouting suddenly all across the region, creat- ing tremendous instability and the potential for nuclear crises amid the world’s most important oil-producing region. obviously, this would be disastrous for U.s. interests in the region and also globally, thanks to the demise of the non- proliferation regime.
Finally, if the United states explicitly adopts the containment option, it would be sending the signal to israel that no one else is going to try to prevent iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. although the determination of israeli leaders to prevent iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon at any price has been greatly exagger- ated—and many actually believe they probably could deter a nuclear-armed iran—there is no guarantee that israel will simply give up. Jerusa- lem might decide to try its own military option, despite the fact that israeli leaders recognize it
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as an unattractive course of action. if Jerusalem concludes that it cannot risk its existence on ira- nian rationality and prudence, it may strike, and this could be detrimental to american interests. in particular, it could destroy international sup- port for sanctions, hosting american military bases, and other american diplomatic initiatives in the region.
For all of these reasons, as part of a policy of con- tainment, the United states would want to consid- er more explicitly extending its nuclear umbrella to saudi arabia, the other Gcc states, egypt, is- rael, and possibly iraq.85 egypt, israel, and saudi arabia are already major non-Nato allies of the United states, and it is widely expected that the United states would come to their defense with all necessary means. however, any ambiguity might be problematic in the circumstances that would arise from iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, and so it might be necessary to remove it alto- gether by issuing a blanket declaration that an at- tack on any of these countries would be regarded as tantamount to an attack on the territory of the United states itself. e Gcc states should also be a orded the same status, given their importance as oil and gas producers and american allies. assuming that the United states and iraq con- tinue to have a close relationship even a er the withdrawal of american combat forces, which seems likely given iraqi demands that the strate- gic Framework agreement include an american guarantee to defend iraq against foreign threats, iraq also would fall into this category, if only so as to prevent the resurrection of the atomic arms race between Baghdad and tehran of the 1970s and 1980s.
even this momentous step might not do the trick, however. During the cold War, Germans famous- ly (and perhaps appropriately) worried that the United states would not be willing to risk Boston
to defend Bonn. But Washington will have little choice other than to try to make it work as best as possible.
even more than conventional military defenses, the states of the Middle east and central asia would likely look to the United states to help them defend against iranian-supported subver- sion, terrorism, and insurgencies if Washington opts for containment. as noted, iran simply cannot mount much of a conventional military threat, but it has proven quite skillful at the full spectrum of asymmetric warfare. at is where the other states of the region would face the great- est threat if iran does become more aggressive once it acquires a nuclear weapons capability. consequently, the United states would have to make a major e ort to improve both the national defenses of these various countries and region- wide integrated programs.
ere is an unpleasant catch-22 inherent in con- tainment in this area. speci cally, many national governments will be frightened by iran’s ability and presumed greater willingness to stoke inter- nal unrest abroad. as such, they would likely re- act by clamping down on internal opposition and suspending all political, economic, and social re- form programs out of fear that iran would try to exploit any movements for change. however, in the face of a more assertive iran looking to more aggressively stoke internal unrest, it would be more important than ever for the governments of the region to press ahead with gradual but com- prehensive and determined reform programs to eliminate the underlying sources of popular grievance. e paradox is that the natural inclina- tion of all of these regimes will be to do the exact opposite, and so render themselves potentially more vulnerable over the long term.
84 turkey presumably would be reassured by its Nato membership and so would not need a similar declaration.
containment is never an easy sell. ose on the political right will excoriate the policy as strate- gic suicide because they tend to believe that iran cannot be deterred. For them, trying to live with a nuclear iran is impossible and therefore unac- ceptable. ose on the political le will denounce it with equal vigor as an imperialistic e ort to de- monize iran unfairly and to militarize a problem that could be resolved peacefully, through engage- ment and unilateral gestures. Democracy and hu- man rights activists on both sides will complain (possibly accurately) that the policy abdicates any e ort to aid the people of iran in their struggle against a deeply oppressive regime. if the policy is adopted as Washington’s rst choice (rather than a fallback option), even the political center will likely ght it in the belief that the United states should have tried one of the other options rst.
in short, if the president opts for containment, he is going to have his work cut out for him at home, as well as abroad. containment is not the kind of iran policy that is likely to generate much en- thusiasm in any corner of the american political spectrum. at is another reason why most have tended to consider it a last-ditch, fallback option rather than a rst choice.
Pros and Cons
e following are the advantages and disadvantag- es of the Containment approach.
Given the low odds that any of the other policy options will succeed, the United states may well end up with containment regardless of what it tries rst. Moving im- mediately to containment without trying other options rst would save the energy and resources that would be spent on those
options. in particular, this would mean that the United states would not have to make any painful trade-o s between the require- ments of its iran policy and those of other, equally important policies. For example, opting for containment might eliminate the need to make any concessions to russia on everything from missile defense to Bos- nia to its treatment of chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus. it would certainly al- low the president to make other issues his priorities and remove iran as a major drain on american diplomatic capital.
containment would imply bearable costs on an annual basis, although those costs would certainly add up over time. e current level of naval and air forces would need to be maintained in the Persian Gulf region, likely with some residual ground presence in iraq and afghanistan—all of which was always envisioned by american military and political leaders in any case. ere would not need to be any particular military buildup.
containment would probably diminish iran’s ability to make mischief in the Mid- dle east and south asia, possibly to a con- siderable degree. over the past 30 years, neither iran nor the United states has en- tirely succeeded in achieving its goals with regard to the other, but given the relative power and in uence of the two countries in the Middle east and central asia today, the United states has done relatively much better. iran remains weak and poor, and the few allies it has are also weak. hardly any countries appear ready to embrace Khomeini’s islamic revolution or look to tehran for advice, support, or permission to act. and internationally, iran remains a pariah nation, tolerated because of its oil and gas exports, but otherwise shunned.
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at is not a bad record for containment, and it suggests that the United states could similarly limit tehran in the future.
containment assumes that tehran can be deterred. While there is evidence to sup- port that contention, it is unproven at best, and if it is incorrect, the outcome could be spectacularly horrible. as with contain- ment of the soviet Union, it rests on the as- sumption that the other side would not do anything manifestly foolish, but that may not be the case.
Moreover, in the case of iran, perverse internal politics have o en caused the is- lamic republic to take foreign policy ac- tions that were manifestly foolish. an ob- vious example of this was iran’s holding of the 52 american hostages for 444 days in 1979-1981. is act gravely harmed iran in a variety of ways—damage that was ap- parent to any number of iranian political leaders at the time—but iran’s internal politics trumped these strategic consider- ations and produced behavior that the rest of the world considered reckless and even irrational.
allowing iran to develop a nuclear weap- ons capability could well encourage other regional states to develop similar capabili- ties of their own. such a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf region could be highly dangerous and destabilizing, and it would
increase the likelihood of a nuclear crisis (or even a nuclear exchange) by accident or as a result of escalation.
an american decision to stop trying to pre- vent iran from acquiring a nuclear weap- ons capability and simply rely on policies that use containment and deterrence might cause israeli leaders to opt for a strike against iranian nuclear sites, in the belief that they have no alternative. such a strike could trigger a wider con ict between is- rael and iran that could draw in the United states and other countries.
allowing iran to develop a nuclear weap- ons capability, despite a publicly avowed consensus among the greater powers that it cannot be allowed to do so, could be the last nail in the co n of the NPt, elimi- nating the global non-proliferation norm, with unforeseeable consequences in east asia, south america, and other parts of the world.
if iran is seen as no longer on the defensive and more able to go on the o ensive—both because Washington had ceased its e orts to coerce tehran and because iran someday acquires a nuclear weapons capability—the arab states will likely become more fear- ful of iran. is may lead them to “band- wagon” with iran, and almost certainly will make them less willing to reform, but at a time when the risk of greater iranian sub- version actually would make it more neces- sary for them to do so.
craFtiNG aN iNteGrateD iraN PoLicY connecting the options
None of the policy options toward iran have a high likelihood of succeeding, even as their proponents would de ne success. None is likely to protect all of america’s national interests at low cost and with minimal risks. as should be appar- ent by this point, all of them are less than ideal solutions to the problems iran poses. indeed, one of the reasons that the iran debate is so conten- tious and intractable is that there is no obviously right course of action. instead, policymakers must choose the least bad from among a range of unpalatable alternatives.
What should also be clear is that few, if any, of the options presented in this book constitute an un- equivocal, stand-alone policy. at the very least, each will require contingency plans and fallback positions in the event that circumstances change or the approach fails. even a policy comprised of pure engagement would have to acknowledge that iran might take action (like mounting a major terror- ist attack or testing a nuclear weapon) that could force the United states to abandon this course. similarly, even if the United states were to commit itself to mounting a full-scale invasion, the need to garner domestic political support (and the hope of securing some international support) would likely require making a diplomatic overture to iran rst.
other options might be pursued simultaneously with one another—indeed, the Persuasion option
includes a tactical version of the engagement op- tion (which might turn into a strategic version under the right circumstances, thus making en- gagement a potential follow-on to Persuasion). Persuasion also allows for the possibility of em- ploying some form of the regime change options as additional sources of pressure on iran if sanc- tions alone are considered inadequate. alterna- tively, an administration determined to mount a full-court press against iran short of an invasion might employ all of the regime change options plus the airstrikes option. in other words, there is potentially a great deal of interplay among the op- tions. if Washington policymakers chose to pursue several options simultaneously, or to combine ele- ments of di erent options, it would have to spend a great deal of time thinking through not only how to make each individual option work, but how to make them work in tandem so that they reinforce one another rather than running at cross-purposes.
indeed, because the problem of iran is such a dif- cult one, any realistic policy toward iran likely would combine at least two or more options, ei- ther in sequence, as contingency plans, or as par- allel tracks. a single option approach to the prob- lem of iran would have much less likelihood of achieving U.s. interests. consequently, another critical element in forging an e ective policy to- ward iran is to understand how various policy op- tions can or cannot be integrated.
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e obama administration has already recog- nized that reality. although the president himself and many of his top aides, including secretary of state clinton and Dennis ross, her iran adviser, have all indicated that the core of their policy will be the kind of complex positive and negative incen- tives embodied by the Persuasion option, they have also made clear that the full policy will incorporate other options in various ways.85 President obama has stressed that he hopes for a fully cooperative relationship with iran. in this he is clearly convey- ing that he would like to see the tactical engage- ment envisioned in the Persuasion strategy open up into full strategic engagement as envisioned in the engagement option, if the iranians indicate that they are willing and able. in some ways, the administration’s o er of a hand of friendship to the iranians suggests that Washington would be will- ing to start with the engagement approach, and will only convert that into the Persuasion approach if the iranians refuse the o er. Nevertheless, Presi- dent obama has steadfastly refused to rule out the military option, which also means that he and his advisers recognize that under certain circumstanc- es, the United states will at least have to consider airstrikes or even the full-scale invasion option if the iranians prove unwilling to compromise.86 us the integrated policy of the obama admin- istration has a core option but also includes a half- dozen others as contingency or follow-on plans.
The Dos and Don’ts of Integration
is recognition by the obama administration is important because Persuasion is the option most
easily integrated with other options. to some ex- tent, every other option can become a fallback op- tion for or a compliment to the incentives-based approach of Persuasion. is gives the option a great deal of exibility and “interoperability” in the sense that it can be married up with many other approaches. it is almost certainly a key rea- son that the administration opted to make it the centerpiece of its initial iran policy.
as we have noted several times, inherent in the Persuasion strategy is a form of tactical engage- ment with iran meant to facilitate reaching a “deal” in which Washington would give tehran what it wants on economic, security, and political matters in return for tehran giving Washington what it needs regarding iran’s nuclear program, support for violent extremist groups, and e orts to destabilize the Middle east. if the iranians ac- cept that deal (recognizing that it may be an in- cremental process of piecemeal negotiations rath- er than a single “grand bargain”), then Persuasion intrinsically envisions a shi to strategic engage- ment to ful ll the terms of that deal over the long term.
if the iranians refuse the deal, Persuasion envi- sions imposing ever more painful economic sanc- tions on iran with the aim of bringing tehran to accept the deal. it is also at least plausible in theo- ry to try to employ any of the various methods of regime change in conjunction with the sanctions. is was essentially the approach of the Bush 43 administration, which attempted to amplify the pressure on iran from sanctions by also support- ing both democracy movements and reportedly
85 in her april 22, 2009 appearance before the house committee on Foreign a airs, secretary clinton said, “We actually believe that by following the diplomatic path we are on, we gain credibility and in uence with a number of nations who would have to participate in order to make the sanctions regime as tight and crippling as we would want it to be. so i think the short answer is, it is our expectation that we will be able to put together such a comprehensive sanctions regime in the event we need it.” hearing of the house committee on Foreign a airs, New Beginnings: Foreign Policy Priorities In e Obama Administration, 111th cong,. 1st sess., april 22, 2009.
86 Following his april 21, 2009 meeting with King abdullah ii of Jordan, President obama spoke about his administration’s policy toward iran, saying that “tough, direct diplomacy has to be pursued without taking a whole host of other options o the table.” e White house, “remarks by President obama and King abdullah of Jordan in Joint Press availability,” april 21, 2009, available at <http://www.whitehouse. gov/the_press_o ce/remarks-by-President-obama-and-King-abdullah-of-Jordan-in-joint-press-availability/>.
ethnic insurgencies in iran.87 of course, this strat- egy had not worked before Bush le o ce, but its proponents could plausibly argue that it did not have enough time to have any impact. it is certain- ly imaginable that putting the Bush strategy back in place and adding one or more of the regime change options could put much greater pressure on tehran, and that might increase the likelihood that the regime would agree to compromise.
however, many experts on iran argue the exact opposite: that the sine qua non of striking a deal with tehran is convincing the clerical regime that the United states is not seeking its overthrow, and only under those circumstances will tehran feel secure enough to make compromises. ey con- tend that if iran feels threatened by the United states, it will be far more inclined to dig in its heels and ght back, thereby undermining the basic premise of Persuasion. ere is some evi- dence to support this contention. For instance, in 1994-1996, when tehran believed that Washing- ton was ratcheting up its covert action program against the islamic regime, the iranians did not signal any greater willingness to compromise but instead lashed out at the United states in whatever manner they could. tehran was probably behind the Khobar towers attack that killed 19 ameri- can military personnel and conducted aggressive surveillance of american diplomatic and military personnel and installations all across the Middle east, instigated attacks by the Palestinian islamic Jihad and hizballah against israel to subvert the peace process, and attempted to overthrow the government of Bahrain.
in theory, airstrikes also could be employed to exert pressure on tehran if it refuses an initial deal, although in practice, they could easily prove
counterproductive. airstrikes would likely rally the iranian people around the worst elements in the regime, at least initially. is, in turn, would make it more likely iran would retaliate, withdraw from the NPt, and recommit to acquiring nuclear weapons, and/or end any ongoing negotiations with the United states, the United Nations, or other members of the international community.
Nevertheless, if it becomes clear that iran is not negotiating seriously with the United states but is merely playing for time—or refuses to negotiate altogether—then all three of the military options would take on signi cantly greater relevance as fallback options for the Persuasion option. if ne- gotiating a deal is simply no longer feasible, the obama administration will be le with an unpal- atable choice between taking military action it- self, letting israel do it, or moving to contain iran and deter its use of nuclear weapons. if Washing- ton concludes that it does not believe a nuclear iran can e ectively be deterred, or the adminis- tration simply does not want to take that risk, the United states might opt for the airstrikes option or even the invasion option. e israelis will have to make a similar decision, itself contingent upon what the United states decides. and while an is- raeli airstrike has many potential drawbacks for the United states, in a situation in which iran has made it clear that it is unwilling to make any com- promises, Washington might simply decide that it is not worth expending the political capital to prevent israel from launching a strike if Jerusalem opts to do so.
Furthermore, all of these scenarios could also be raised simply as implicit threats, and those threats might serve as a useful form of pressure on iran as part of the Persuasion approach in ways that their
87 seymour M. hersh, “Preparing the Battle eld,” New Yorker, July 7, 2008; Joby Warrick, “U.s. is said to expand covert operations in iran: Plan allows up to $400 Million for activities aimed at Destabilizing Government,” Washington Post, June 30, 2008; robin Wright, “stuart Levey’s War,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, october 31, 2008.
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implementation might not. in other words, the United states could let it be known that if iran is unwilling to negotiate an end to its problematic be- havior, then the United states would have to look hard at all of the other options, and under those circumstances, the military options would look far more attractive than they do at present. e clear implication would be that if tehran is unwilling to compromise, it may nd itself in a war it does not want. such threats have the merit of being accu- rate representations of where the U.s. policy debate will likely move if iran refuses to compromise, and the obama administration is already signaling as much, including by the president’s refusal to take the military options o the table.
another way that the United states might em- ploy the threat of the military options in support of Persuasion, would be to use them to try con- vince iran not to break o negotiations or clan- destinely cross the nuclear threshold in the midst of them. in this variant, the United states—and possibly israel as well—might warn tehran that if it moved to build and eld a nuclear arsenal be- hind the cover of negotiations, the United states would immediately launch preventive airstrikes. Washington might even hint that an invasion was not unimaginable either in these circumstances. in this manner, the threat of the military options would serve as deterrents intended to keep iran at the bargaining table and prevent the failure of Persuasion despite further iranian progress in its nuclear program.
Likewise, all of the regime change approaches also will become more attractive if the iranians re- fuse to make the compromises o ered under the Persuasion approach. certainly, regime change would be less likely to provoke a diplomatic back- lash from regional and european states against the United states in the same way that a military attack on iran would, making it potentially more palatable. e regime change options might also be employed to keep iran o balance and on the
defensive, and could conceivably produce a new government in tehran that would at least amelio- rate some of the issues between the United states and iran. While all of the regime change options also have considerable problems to overcome, these loom largest when the diplomatic options appear viable. if at some point the diplomatic op- tions are clearly no longer feasible, then regime change will likely seem more compelling.
e last contingency plan for Persuasion (and ev- ery other option) is inevitably the containment option. as we noted, containment is the policy the United states traditionally adopts toward a problematic state only when all other approaches have failed (or seem destined to fail). if iran re- fuses to compromise and the administration de- cides not to pursue either regime change or the military option, containment would be the logi- cal fallback.
other aspects of containment might be helpful in pursuing the Persuasion option. in particular, it might also be necessary for the United states to provide the kind of formal nuclear guarantees to israel and america’s arab allies envisioned as part of containment to create the necessary time and diplomatic “space” for Persuasion to work. in previous administrations such guarantess were shunned for fear that it would signal a lack of U.s. resolve to curb iran’s nuclear program. however, as iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium grows, its neighbors are naturally becoming more anxious about its intentions. is anxiety is causing them to begin looking seriously at their own options: in israel’s case, a preventive strike; in the arabs’ case, the acquisition of their own nuclear weap- ons. in other words, the possible unintended consequences of pursuing the Persuasion option is that it could trigger a regional con agration or a regional nuclear arms race. to forestall such untoward developments, extending deterrence to america’s regional allies may actually be an es- sential and urgent complement to the Persuasion
option, one that might well be welcomed by america’s regional allies. in these circumstances, it is also conceivable (although not likely) that saudi arabia and other Gcc states might wel- come the kind of american “tripwire” forces sug- gested under containment and that would be an important component of e ective deterrence. e idea would be for the United states to “buy time” for Persuasion to work by lulling the fears of our regional allies, all of whom may grow even more alarmed if they see negotiations moving slowly while iran’s nuclear program continues to move quickly.
similarly, a regional containment strategy could also be introduced to enhance the likelihood of success for Persuasion. is is because at the same time as iran considers how to respond to the obama administration’s diplomatic overtures, it is continuing its aggressive e orts to subvert its arab neighbors and support hizballah’s and hamas’s e orts to block american peacemaking e orts. is has generated a sense of common interest between israel and its arab neighbors to counter iran’s meddling in their neighborhoods. ere are also signs that iran’s ally syria is grow- ing increasingly uncomfortable with its position on the wrong side of the sunni-shi’ah divide. and as the United states begins its withdrawal from iraq, syria and iran may become rivals for in u- ence in neighboring Baghdad. a containment strategy that sought to limit iran’s in uence in the Middle east heartland by working with israel and the arabs to resolve the arab-israeli con ict in all its dimensions (i.e. seeking Palestinian, syrian, and Lebanese peace agreements), and by working with iraq’s arab neighbors to reduce its in uence in Baghdad, could do much to concentrate the minds of iranian leaders. if they began to feel that rather than dominate the region they were at risk of being le behind as a new more peaceful re- gional order began to emerge, they might be more inclined to take U.s. o ers at the negotiating table more seriously.
one of the potential problems with the Persua- sion option is that the various clocks are not syn- chronized. e iranian clock ticks much more slowly because tehran has every interest in play- ing for time while it completes all the necessary elements of its nuclear program. e israeli and arab clocks tick much more quickly because they cannot abide iran achieving a nuclear threshold capability and grow ever more anxious as iran gets closer to that point. Meanwhile, the ameri- can clock for the Persuasion option is ticking at a pace somewhere between these two poles since there is a recognition that time is needed to play out the option but that a dragged out negotia- tion will become unsustainable. e challenge for american policymakers will be to synchronize these clocks by making the iranians feels a greater sense of urgency while enabling the israelis and arabs to relax a little more. is is where the ele- ments of the containment option could become useful complements to Persuasion.
an alternative example: regime Change
although it is impractical to lay out how each op- tion can be interwoven with every other one, it may be useful for comparative purposes to sketch out how a di erent overarching strategy from that which the obama administration has cho- sen might encompass many di erent options in a more integrated policy. instead of adopting Per- suasion, the obama administration might have opted to pursue regime change (it still may if its initial e orts prove fruitless). regime change is another strategy that could involve most of the other options in various roles.
First, the United states might opt to employ some version of Persuasion to set up regime change. regime change would seem far more palatable to americans, Middle easterners, europeans, and asians—and probably even to the iranian people—if they believe that iran had been o ered
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a very good deal and turned it down. indeed, if this is the perception among iranians, more of them might be willing to oppose the regime. us, starting with some e ort at Persuasion would be a good way to begin, but if regime change were really Washington’s goal, the United states would have to ensure that the iranians turned down the o ered deal, while making sure that the deal looked attractive to others. if the iran experts are right that tehran is unlikely to compromise no matter what it is o ered as long as it feels threat- ened, then a clever approach to regime change might be to simultaneously o er a good deal (al- beit not one so good that tehran might overcome its paranoia) while ratcheting up a range of regime change programs that the leadership would per- ceive as a threat. arguably, this is what the Bush 43 administration did—although that was certainly not the intention of most members of the admin- istration charged with handling iran. ( en again, it may have been the intention of others working elsewhere within the administration.)88
as far as the regime change options themselves, an american administration might choose to pursue all three of the speci c routes—popular revolu- tion, insurgency, and coup—on the grounds that doing so would increase the likelihood that one of them will succeed. Moreover, employing all three simultaneously might create helpful synergies among them. For instance, if the regime becomes bogged down ghting various insurgencies, irani- an military o cers might become convinced that the leadership must be replaced and that there is an opportunity to do so. is is e ectively what happened in iraq in 1963 and 1968 when Baghdad
was mired in an unsuccessful counterinsurgency struggle against the Kurds. in addition, applying such across-the-board pressure against tehran would strain the regime’s intelligence and secu- rity capabilities as well as its decision-making processes, and so might cause the regime to make a mistake that would allow one or another of the approaches to succeed.
a policy determined to overthrow the govern- ment of iran might very well include plans for a full-scale invasion as a contingency for extreme circumstances. certainly, if various forms of co- vert and overt support simply failed to produce the desired e ect, a president determined to pro- duce regime change in iran might consider an invasion as the only other way to achieve that end. Moreover, the United states would have to expect iran to ght back against american regime change operations, as it has in the past. although the iranians typically have been careful to avoid crossing american red lines, they certainly could miscalculate, and it is entirely possible that their retaliation for U.s. regime change activities would appear to americans as having crossed just such a threshold. For example, if iran retaliated with a major terrorist attack that killed large numbers of people or a terrorist attack involving WMDs—es- pecially on U.s. soil—Washington might decide that an invasion was the only way to deal with such a dangerous iranian regime. indeed, for this same reason, e orts to promote regime change in iran might be intended by the U.s. government as deliberate provocations to try to goad the iranians into an excessive response that might then justify an american invasion.
88 is kind of “poison pill” stratagem is exactly what some iranians fear the obama administration is doing, and what other iranians claim as a way of justifying rejection of Washington’s overtures. ese iranians fear that the United states is not genuine in its pursuit of compromise and cooperation with tehran, and is simply setting up iran for much tighter sanctions and/or regime change. consequently, another hurdle the obama administration will have to clear to make its preferred policy of Persuasion work will be convincing the iranians that Washington is sincere and not just looking for an excuse to clobber tehran, either with much harsher sanctions or regime change. e obama administration will have to convince at least some key iranian leaders, probably including Khamene’i, that it is willing to take “yes” for an answer.
in a similar vein, the United states might need to employ airstrikes against a variety of targets in response to iranian retaliation for regime change programs. in this way, american airstrikes might be a branch of a regime change policy, but it could also be a contingency because it would be di cult to e ect regime change in iran in time to prevent tehran from acquiring the capability to build one or more nuclear weapons. consequently, Wash- ington might want to have the option to mount airstrikes against the iranian nuclear program simply to push that date down the road and thus buy time for regime change to have its desired ef- fect. Finally, as we noted in Part iii, all of the re- gime change options require the United states to consider whether to provide military support (at least in the form of airstrikes) to whichever irani- an oppositionists Washington chooses to encour- age. Popular revolutions can only succeed if the government has lost the will or ability to employ its armed forces against the people; insurgencies may need direct military intervention either to stave o a catastrophic defeat, like at the Bay of Pigs, or to bring about nal victory, as in afghani- stan in 2001; and coup plotters o en need spe- ci c units or facilities neutralized to allow them to spring their coup.
Moreover, regime change requires the simultane- ous pursuit of containment.89 if the United states is trying to overthrow the government of iran, it will be critical to prevent iran from making mis- chief abroad and from growing stronger eco- nomically, militarily, and politically. e United states will want to deny tehran the wherewithal to threaten neighbors that might be providing sanctuary for insurgents or otherwise helping the oppositionists. us the sanctions, military deterrence, isolation, and economic warfare en- visioned as key components of the containment
option would be invaluable—indeed, indispen- sible—aids to a regime change policy.
expecting the Unexpected
as the preceding sections have illustrated, a criti- cal reason that any american strategy toward iran must integrate a range of di erent options is the potential for events to occur that would make any of the options infeasible, and so force a change in approach. it is essential to keep in mind this law of unintended consequences when devising a new iran policy because the inter-related nature of dy- namics in the wider Middle east tends to generate sudden and unpredictable developments. Unlikely occurrences happen with surprising frequency and the complexity of any iran policy is such that it will depend on a range of developments, all of which will be susceptible to the vicissitudes of fortune.
any strategy toward iran is likely to depend on a wide range of developments breaking in par- ticular directions for it to work. Moreover, any strategy toward iran is likely to require time to have its desired e ect. as noted, in theory, an in- vasion might be implemented within a matter of months, but the reality is that the need to build up domestic political support for such an en- deavor—and hopefully blunt antipathy abroad— likely means that even an invasion would require months or even years of political and diplomatic legwork before the ships could sail. Likewise, it would take time for the United states and its allies to formulate a new o er to iran, propose it, and have iran accept it. consequently, recognizing the importance of the element of time also means recognizing the potential for other developments to intervene, and the more time that passes, the more things will happen that will have an impact on U.s. policy toward iran.
89 in theory, containment might also bene t from the simultaneous pursuit of regime change. support to iranian insurgents, oppositionists, and even coup plotters could keep the regime o balance and focused on defending its internal position, which might distract its attention and resources away from o ensive operations against the United states and its allies abroad.
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ere is a very long list of things that might tran- spire that would have at least a moderate impact on a new iran policy. almost any major develop- ment in iran—for example, the election of a new president, the death of Khamene’i, or economic collapse—would likely have major repercus- sions for U.s. policy. Not every development in the United states would have the same potential, but there are certainly many that would. obvi- ously, nancial collapse would head that list, but there are others imaginable, such as a change in the makeup of congress following the 2010 elec- tions. in addition, global events that a ected the political, security, or economic fortunes of saudi arabia, israel, Pakistan, or turkey might also fall into this category. state collapse in Lebanon, iraq, afghanistan, or the Palestinian territories would likely have an important impact on the U.s.-ira- nian relationship, especially if tehran were seen as complicit in the fall, or merely moved quickly with its allies and proxies to try to take advan- tage of the situation. similarly, because europe, russia, Japan, china, india, and other countries beyond the Middle east also have an important role in some of the options, their decisions could make some options more attractive and others less so. e Persuasion option that the obama administration has chosen relies heavily on the cooperation of all of those countries; thus events that make them more or less willing to participate will a ect the ability of the administration to suc- ceed—and this, in turn, could in uence its deci- sion to stick with that option or switch to some- thing else.
to illustrate how di erent events could greatly a ect the viability and attractiveness of the vari- ous options, imagine that King abdullah of saudi arabia dies within the next one to two years and is succeeded by Prince Nayif ibn abd al-aziz,
recently named the second deputy prime min- ister.90 although abdullah is deeply concerned about iran and its pursuit of a nuclear capabil- ity, he has steadfastly pursued a policy of détente with tehran for more than a decade. Nayif, on the other hand, is widely believed to favor a much tougher policy toward iran, and he might come to Washington and tell the president that iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is simply intoler- able for saudi arabia. assume for a minute that Nayif also pledges to support the United states in taking a more aggressive approach than the new Persuasion policy, and asserts that if the United states is unable to do so, then the saudis will ac- quire nuclear weapons of their own. is would constitute a fairly dramatic divergence from abdullah’s policy and would signi cantly change many of the pros, cons, and requirements of the di erent options. With saudi arabia (and the rest of the Gcc) behind the United states, Washing- ton might consider airstrikes, regime change, and even an invasion as being both more feasible and less costly than they appear today. similarly, if the United states believes that it is highly likely that saudi arabia will acquire nuclear weapons if iran crosses the nuclear threshold, both Persuasion and engagement may look less appealing.
as another important example, if iran were to detonate a nuclear weapon, this would dramati- cally alter the calculus of any U.s. administration considering various options toward iran. Because of the risk of nuclear retaliation, the desirability of an invasion—and even of airstrikes—would become vanishingly small. e United states has never attacked another nuclear-armed state and has done everything it could to avoid doing so. containment would become more neces- sary, while engagement might become far more
90 at present, Nayif ’s full brother sultan is rst deputy prime minister and crown prince, but he is in extremely poor health and may well die before the king. us it is more likely that abdullah will be succeeded by Nayif than sultan, although Nayif is not even assured of becoming crown prince once sultan dies.
palatable and popular as an alternative to con ict. e need to try to prevent iran from acquiring a nuclear capability—a critical criticism of both op- tions—would be gone, and the question would simply be how best to deal with a nuclear iran. re- gime change and Persuasion both would be much trickier, but not necessarily impossible. e Unit- ed states has maintained covert action programs against other nuclear-armed states. history has demonstrated that the possession of nuclear weap- ons does not immunize a country from internal problems, including internal revolution, with the soviet Union and south africa both being cases in point. e di culty is likely to lie in the greater reticence of iran’s neighbors to anger a nuclear- armed iran; but this, too, is not insurmountable, just di cult. as far as Persuasion is concerned, there is evidence of states with actual nuclear ar- senals (not just the theoretical capacity to build them) giving up their weapons under the right conditions. e circumstances in which Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and south africa did so are all very di erent from those that would likely ob- tain if iran were to acquire a nuclear arsenal, but they still suggest that it is not impossible that the iranians might some day relinquish theirs. More- over, North Korea’s situation is much more anal- ogous to that of iran, and while the current deal has considerable potential pitfalls, and it is not at all clear that the North Koreans will end up dis- armed, it also suggests that it might be possible to convince iran to give up its nuclear program even a er it has crossed the nuclear weapon threshold (although it would obviously be much harder than convincing them not to do so in the rst place).
one last example of the kind of major develop- ment that could fundamentally reorder U.s. think- ing about the various iran options would be the emergence of a charismatic opposition leader in iran. e clerical regime has assiduously worked to prevent this, using utterly ruthless methods, but the islamic republic might slip up and one might rise to prominence and popularity anyway.
an iranian Mandela, havel, Bolivar, or Walesa— someone who was able to unify the iranian oppo- sition and generate genuine mass appeal—could also force a transformation in american thinking. First, his or her presence would alter the probabil- ity of a popular revolution in iran, making that regime change option far more feasible than it is at present. (and we do not rule out the possibility that american support for a popular revolution might have enabled the emergence of that leader.) second, it would be very unpalatable for the Unit- ed states to betray someone who has galvanized the iranian people and was organizing a genuine democratic opposition. Not only might this drive the United states to embrace support for a popu- lar revolution as the primary element in Wash- ington’s iran policy, it might similarly convince the U.s. administration to support insurgencies or airstrikes against iran as a way of putting pres- sure on the regime and preventing/dissuading it from jailing or killing the charismatic leader. if the regime did so anyway, that might serve as exactly the kind of outrage that would garner both domestic american political support and international diplomatic support for even more aggressive policies toward tehran, possibly even including an invasion. alternatively, if this leader were to ask the United states not to stir up ethnic unrest or launch military strikes against the re- gime because doing so would undermine his ef- forts, this would just as decisively eliminate those options from consideration.
of course, there are many other possible devel- opments that could have a similar impact on american thinking. an israeli airstrike against iranian nuclear facilities without U.s. approval, a major change in the price of oil, a domestic re- volt by one or more of iran’s minorities, the death of Khamene’i, even the resurgence of the taliban in afghanistan, could all signi cantly change the pros and cons, the requirements, and the time frames of various options, making some more at- tractive and others less.
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WhICh PaTh To PerSIa? options for a New american Strategy toward Iran
Priorities and Trade-offs
a last but crucial consideration that will bear on the integration and salience of di erent options will be the prominence of iran policy relative to all of the other pressing matters facing the gov- ernment of the United states. Most obviously, the obama administration will have to decide what priority to place on iran in the midst of the worst economic crisis that the United states has faced in 80 years. Many of the iran options require commitments that will compete with the needs of economic recovery, at least to some extent, and the administration will have to decide how to prioritize among them. an invasion would demand a major commitment of american mili- tary forces and sustaining that military commit- ment, along with major economic and political assistance, for years. Washington might be loath to commit these kinds of resources to its iran policy rather than reserving them for domestic economic recovery. Many of the options are also very involved and demanding and, if they are to have a reasonable chance of success, would re- quire considerable time and attention from the president himself—typically the most precious commodity that any administration must allo- cate. at a moment when the president and his most important advisers may need to spend a considerable amount of time and political capital on the economy or other domestic and foreign priorities, it may be di cult to make these avail- able for iran policy.
Virtually all of the options require some degree of support from countries in the Middle east at a time when the United states also wants their help to push for a comprehensive arab-israeli peace agreement, keep iraq on the right track, pres- sure sudan to end its genocide, bolster Lebanese democracy, draw syria into a constructive re- gional role, and support a host of other under- takings. at the same time, the United states also wants these countries to continue to reform their
dysfunctional economic, political, and social sys- tems to start addressing the sources of the Middle east’s endemic instability. and Washington will probably need the help of the region’s oil produc- ers to address the global economic mess. in the past, the regimes of the region have successfully forced the United states to choose among such di erent interests, and if Washington opts for an iran policy that they dislike, the United states will be forced to do so again. in that case, Washing- ton would have to decide whether their help for an iran policy that they dislike is more important than america’s other regional ambitions.
Persuasion, the policy that the obama admin- istration has adopted as the core of its new iran strategy, will also require the administration to secure the consent of russia, china, Germany, Japan, and other countries to impose harsh sanc- tions on iran—something that few of them fa- vor—if iran refuses the deal it is o ered. all can probably be convinced to do so, but that would require the United states to compromise with them on other issues that will be unpalatable— like energy policy for china, and missile defense or U.s. policies toward former soviet republics for russia. again, the obama administration is go- ing to have to decide which deals it is willing to make to secure international cooperation in im- plementing harsh sanctions against iran. and if these countries are unwilling to participate, then it may be necessary to go looking for a di erent strategy altogether.
Which Path to Persia?
as we warned at the beginning of this study, cra - ing a new policy toward iran is a complicated and uncertain challenge. iran is an extremely complex society, with an opaque and Byzantine political system, and its interactions with the outside world are similarly convoluted. Policymakers must take each of these problems into account and must also allow for american political preferences as
well as the potential reactions of several dozen other countries in the Middle east and beyond. it is no wonder that the United states has not yet g- ured out the solution to the puzzle that is iran. it is also no wonder that so many american leaders have thrown up their hands in despair and tried to have as little to do with iran as possible.
But as we also observed at the outset, ignoring iran is no longer a realistic alternative—not that it ever was. tehran is acting on a broad range of issues of great concern to the United states. it will not stop doing so just because americans are ba ed by what to do. Nor will other countries re- frain from acting even if the United states does. in this study, we have tried to lay out the many di erent courses of action available to the United states. it is not the purpose of this monograph to argue for one approach over another, in part
because no course is unambiguously better than all of the rest. instead, we have laid out the paths for the policymakers, and it will be up to them to choose which to take. e obama administra- tion has made its choice, at least for now. Wheth- er this path will lead the United states to a better place is yet to be determined. We can all hope that it will, and there is some reason to believe that it can. But if it does not, the administration will soon nd itself right back at the same intersec- tion, with the same choices but less time, fewer resources, and perhaps a weaker will to choose the next path and see if it will lead to the place we seek: a place where iran is no longer the bane of the United states in the Middle east, and perhaps is even america’s friend once again. Given the dif- culty of following any of these paths, americans should be ready to settle for the former, even as they hope for the latter.
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the saban center for Middle east Policy
the saban center for Middle east Policy was established on May 13, 2002 with an inau- gural address by his Majesty King abdullah ii of Jordan. e creation of the saban center re ects the Brookings institution’s commitment to expand dramatically its research and analysis of Middle east policy issues at a time when the region has come to dominate the U.s. foreign policy agenda.
e saban center provides Washington policy- makers with balanced, objective, in-depth and timely research and policy analysis from experi- enced and knowledgeable scholars who can bring fresh perspectives to bear on the critical problems of the Middle east. e center upholds the Brook- ings tradition of being open to a broad range of views. e saban center’s central objective is to advance understanding of developments in the Middle east through policy-relevant scholarship and debate.
e center’s foundation was made possible by a generous grant from haim and cheryl saban of Los angeles. ambassador Martin s. indyk, senior Fellow in Foreign Policy, is the Director of the sa- ban center. Kenneth M. Pollack is the center’s Di- rector of research. Joining them is a core group of Middle east experts who conduct original re- search and develop innovative programs to pro- mote a better understanding of the policy choices facing american decision makers in the Middle east. ey include tamara cofman Wittes, a
specialist on political reform in the arab world who directs the Project on Middle east Democ- racy and Development; Bruce riedel, who served as a senior advisor to three Presidents on the Mid- dle east and south asia at the National security council during a twenty-nine year career in the cia, a specialist on counterterrorism; suzanne Maloney, a former senior state Department of- cial who focuses on iran and economic devel- opment; stephen r. Grand, Fellow and Director of the Project on U.s. relations with the islamic World; hady amr, Fellow and Director of the Brookings Doha center; shibley telhami, who holds the sadat chair at the University of Mary- land; and Daniel L. Byman, a Middle east ter- rorism expert from Georgetown University. e center is located in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, led by Brookings Vice President car- los Pascual.
e saban center is undertaking path-breaking research in ve areas: the implications of regime change in iraq, including post-war nation-build- ing and Persian Gulf security; the dynamics of iranian domestic politics and the threat of nuclear proliferation; mechanisms and requirements for a two-state solution to the israeli-Palestinian con- ict; policy for the war against terrorism, includ- ing the continuing challenge of state sponsorship of terrorism; and political and economic change in the arab world, and the methods required to promote democratization.
USAs plan for regimeendring i Iran
Det er ingen hemmelighet at USA ønsker å styrte regimet i Iran og skifte det ut med et pro-amerikansk, pro-israelsk regime. Når Hillary Clinton, John McCain og Donald Trump kommer ut med nærmest likelydende uttalelser om å støtte opprøret mot diktauret i Iran, så vet vi hvor landet ligger. Vi har sett filmen før og kjenner neste episode. Denne gangen er vi så heldige at vi kan lese planen for regimeendring svart på hvitt, for den ble publisert av Brookings Instution i 2009, og gjør ingenting for å skjule sine hensikter.
Planen for regimeendring
Brookings Institution er utvilsomt den mest innflytelsesrike tenketanken i USA, og dens rapporter og utredninger får nesten uten unntak stor innflytelse på USAs politikk. Hvis noe er «djupstatens» tenketank, så er det Brookings.
I 2009 publiserte Brookings en rapport, eller nærmest ei håndbok, om hvordan USA skulle sørge for regimeskifte i Iran. For den som ønsker å sette seg inn i USAs planer, taktikk og strategi for å styrte regimet i Iran, er den obligatorisk lesning. Den har tittelen: WHICH PATH TO PERSIA? – Options for a New American Strategy toward Iran (pdf) Den inneholder fire deler:
• Part I – Dissuading Tehran: The Diplomatic options.
• Part II – Disarming Tehran: The Military options
• Part III – Toppling Tehran: Regime Change
• Part IV – Deterring Tehran: Containment
Del III om regimeskifte inneholder fire underkapitler:
• Chapter 6: The Velvet revolution: supporting a Popular Uprising
• Chapter 7: Inspiring an insurgency: supporting Iranian Minority and opposition Groups
• Chapter 8: The coup: supporting a Military Move against the regime
I kapittelet om «fløyelserevolusjonen» skriver Brookings (s. 105):
Man legger ikke
fingrene i mellom her; finansiering og støtte til å organisere en opposisjon, praktisk hjelp av alle slag – og en mediakampanje mot regimet som også tar sikte på å løfte fram opposisjonsfolk som ellers ville ha vært
Når det gjelder å finne folk og grupper som kan brukes i denne planen, finnes det et eget underkapittel med den talende tittelen «Finding the right proxies», altså finne de rette stedfortrederne.
Lista består av reformistene, de intellektuelle, studentorganisasjonene, arbeiderorganisasjoner, organisasjoner i «sivilsamfunnet», sjahtilhengere. Men Brookings konkluderer med at ingen av dem utgjør noen tilstrekkelig kraft til å ta ledelsen i regimeending. Brookings anbefaler derfor at det brukes store pengesummer til å bygge opp en opposisjon, samt å sikre seg detaljert etterretning, for som man skriver:
«Meddling in the
internal politics of another country requires excellent intelligence if the efforts are to succeed.»
Brookings tviler på at en tradisjonell fargerevolusjon vil ha noen sjanser til å lykkes. Derimot har man større tro på det som kalles å «inspirere et opprør», som er behandlet i kapittel 7 (s. 113).
Det vi ser utspille seg i Iran disse dagene ser ut til å være en blanding av reelle protester mot regimets politikk og en kombinasjon av punkt 6 og 7 i Brookings-planen, altså en blanding av «fargerevolusjon» og støtte til opprørsgrupper.
Reell protest og infiltrasjon
Det sier seg sjøl at det er umulig å stimulere et opprør hvis det ikke finnes objektive grunner til å gjøre opprør, eller som en berømt kineser sa: «Du kan ruge en kylling ut av et egg, men uansett hvor mye du ruger kan du ikke ruge en kylling ut av en stein.»
Det iranske folket opplever svært mange problemer, og det religiøse diktaturet har lenge vært upopulært i store deler av folket. Presteskapet har gjort seg til en religiøst-økonomisk overklasse, som styrer ut fra sine egne interesser og er svært korrupte. I basaren i Esfahan møtte jeg en gang en miniatyrmaler som malte bilder av toppløse skjønnheter på kamelbein i den tradisjonelle miniatyrstilen. Jeg spurte ham om han ikke var bekymret for hva prestene ville si, men han svarte foraktelig:
«Prestene bryr seg ikke om nakne damer. de er bare opptatt av penger og makt!»
Korrupsjonen er omfattende og velkjent,
og det har også undergravd mye av den religiøse autoriteten presteskapet måtte ha hatt. Det finnes også etniske og regionale motsetninger og undertrykking av ulike minoriteter, så det finnes mange grunner til misnøye.
Den nåværende presidenten, Hassan Rouhani, fører en nyliberal politikk med privatisering og frislipp av priser. De første protestene i Iran denne gangen rettet seg nettopp mot dette.
Men samtidig er det allerede nå tydelig at opprøret er infiltrert, slik Brookings foreslo. Når demonstranter angriper politistasjoner og militærleire og forsøker å sette fyr på dem, så er det åpenbart provokasjoner som tar sikte på å framprovosere voldelige mottiltak som kan filmes med mobiltelefon og spres på nettet som bevis på at vi står overfor «månedens Hitler». Eller som man sa fra US State Department: «The world is watching».
En uttalelse fra det iranske Tudeh-partiet peker på denne dobbeltheten i begivenhetene. På den ene sida gir partiet sin støtte til det de ser som et rettferdig opprør mot et korrupt og reaksjonært styre. På den andre sida advarer de mot infiltrasjonen fra grupper som er støttet av USA og Israel, som «tar sikte på å erstatte ett reaksjonært styre med et annet reaksjonært styre»:
Ingen revolusjon i denne omgangen
Det ser ut til at dem legitime protestbevegelsen allerede i stor grad er blitt kuppet av grupper med en annen agenda, og dessuten har USA allerede gjort en del tabber, og da ikke minst denne helt åpenbare støtten til «opprøret mot diktatoren», akkurat som om USA har noe som helst mot diktatorer, hvis de bare gjør som USA sier. USAs og Israels hånd i dette er altfor synlig. For eksempel når noen demonstranter roper slagord mot støtte til Hezbollah og Syria, så er det veldig i utakt med iransk opinion. En meningsmåling som ble publisert i juli 2017 av Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) og IranPoll.com viser at det er stor støtte til Rouhanis utenrikspolitikk. Irans seire i kampen mot IS har gjort at flere iranere enn før stiller seg bak støtten til Syria, nemlig hele 64,9%. Det er den økonomiske politikken folk er misfornøyde med, sier den samme målinga.
Det som ikke har kommet fram i vestlige medier – som vanlig – er at samtidig med demonstrajonene mot regimet, har det vært mye større demonstrasjoner til fordel for regimet.
Sammenliknet med i 2009, da det virkelig var store demonstrajoner mot regimet og da det gikk sprekker langt inn i regimets egne rekker, virker den nåværende bevegelsen mye mindre og mye grunnere forankret. Det er også tegn som tyder på et Rouhani vil imøtekomme en del av de økonomiske kravene.
Geopolitisk er det ingen tvil om at Iran har spilt en helt avgjørende rolle for å knuse de jihadistiske leiesoldatene som Vesten og oljediktaturene har sendt inn i Syria, og at Iran har bidratt vesentlig til at Vestens og Israels planer så langt har lidd nederlag. Den vestlige kampanjen for regimeskifte i Iran har ingenting med støtte til demokrati å gjøre, men derimot alt å gjøre med geopolitikk og med særlig Israels ønske om å kunne dominere regionen.
Antakelig innser også de smarteste planleggerne i USA og Israel at de ikke vil klare å utløse noe regimeskifte i denne omgangen. Det de ønsker er å framprovosere hendelser som kan brukes til å skjerpe sanksjonene og bygge opp mer en opinion for stadig mer aggressive tiltak mot Iran. Israel har ikke gjort noen hemmelighet av at det de ønsker er å få USA med på en krig mot Iran. Men da trengs det noe som kan selge krigen i vestlig opinion, slik at til slutt pasifisktiske prester krever bombing. NATO har jo allerede gjort klart at de kommende NATO-krigene vil bli feministiske kriger, kriger for å «hjelpe kvinner og barn». I en artikkel i The Guardian skrev NATO-generalsekretær Jens Stoltenberg og skuespiller Angelina Jolie at Nato må «forsvare kvinners rettigheter».
Så følg med. Det store spillet om Midt-Østen fortsetter.