Tit for Tat: Dealing with Iran

  • Map of Iran
    Feb 24, 2012

    A few weeks ago, I wrote “With Republican candidates debating and issuing policy statements, one might be led to believe there is currently no foreign policy concern more threatening to the United States than a nuclear Iran. With the exception of Ron Paul, the candidates seem to indicate that our military should be poised to attack Iran.”

    Recent tensions stem from attempts by the United States, Canada, and other Western countries to impose severe new economic sanctions on Iran in order to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program. In response, Iran’s vice president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, and Admiral Habibollah Sayari threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz—the transit route for one-fifth of the world’s oil—if its exports are hit by these sanctions, drawing a U.S. warning that its navy is ready to open fire to prevent any blockade of this strategic area. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s implied assurance to make up the 2.5 million barrels of oil per day that Iran exports led Iran’s OPEC governor, Mohammad Ali Khatibi, to state that any attempts by Gulf nations to replace Iran’s output would make them “an accomplice in further events.”

    In response to Israeli and U.S. comments that all options are on the table and that an attack may be imminent, we heard back from Iran on February 11. An Iranian parliamentarian, Alireza Forqani, “speaking for himself, not the government” posted an article on the web that calls for Iran to launch a military strike to destroy Israel. (The website is owned by Ahmad Tavakoli, head of the Research Center of the Iranian parliament.) The article states that, with missiles such as Sejil, Ghadar, Shahab, and Ashura, Iran can destroy Israel in less than nine minutes. This particular website is not normally used by the Iranian government or the Revolutionary Guard to relay messages to the West. However, earlier comments by Sayari and by Mohammed Hejazi, deputy head of the Iran’s armed forces, to the effect that Iran may take action without waiting for its enemies, suggests that the article may have had support from prominent factions in Iran’s government. The article had details about the location of Israel’s nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons sites, missile launching pads, power plants, transportation and communication infrastructure, energy sources, and other potential targets, as well as technical details on the number and range of Iranian missiles. The message seemed to be that Iran’s missiles can cause substantial damage to Israel. The website also makes religious argument that a preemptive strike is allowed if Muslims are or could be under attack and that a “Preemptive Jihad” should be considered. Tit for tat.

    The article clearly exaggerates Iran’s military capabilities, but such temerity increases the level of tension. But before Iran, Israel, and the United States get entangled in a conflict that is illogical, counterproductive, and destructive to global economies—including their own—they need to step back and engage in substantial, rational analysis that is not consumed by bravado.
    There is clear tension on all fronts, as the countries look cautiously at one another for provocation. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama asserted his commitment to preventing Iran’s nuclear weapons development: “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”
    What, then, are the options on the table?

    Regime Change

    While there is substantial opposition to the current regime, we must accept that it still has adequate internal acceptance. Contrary to conventional wisdom in the United States, President Mahmound Ahmadinejad remains popular with a significant segment of his population, and according to “The 2011 Arab Public Opinion Poll” (Brookings, November 2011), he is one of the three most popular leaders in the Arab world. It is reasonable to assume that Ayatollah Khomeini has support among the populace as well, although the religious power structure has also met with resistance.

    Regime change is also not easily or quickly achieved; extreme sanctions have proven unable to produce regime changes in North Korea, Iraq, or Cuba. There is an increasing risk that Iran will retaliate to these measures by damaging our interests in the Persian Gulf, as well as those of our allies around the globe. Attempting regime change is thus extremely risky, will take a lot of time, and could result in regional military conflict.

    Military Strike

    With 23 nuclear facilities, the most recent of which was revealed to be built into the mountains near Qom, the only way to completely remove this threat would be for the United States or Israeli to deploy paratroopers to blow up each site; although there is enough power already stationed in the region to launch such a strike, bombing the facilities will not arrest Iran’s nuclear program. It is also likely that Iran will retaliate and cause significant damage to our allies and our interests in the region.

    We must also assume that an attack on Iranian soil would only serve to strengthen the regime’s position with the Iranian people and would likely ensure that nuclear weapons development would be pursued by Iran with greater urgency and force.

    Negotiations

    Current hostilities should not prevent the pursuit of negotiations and do not offset the strategic logic of rapprochement. President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China in 1972 in the wake of 22 years of hostilities between the two countries, during which the United States routinely accused China of supporting terrorism around the globe. As Nixon did with China, we need to reach out and send a message that we want to come to a mutually amicable solution that avoids war.

    We must engage in the possibility that, with supervision by the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), we can ensure that Iran’s nuclear capabilities are used solely for energy purposes. Even if Iran has the capability to develop nuclear weapons, the gradual removal of economic sanctions will be conducive to an extensive tracking of these capabilities.

    Robust Diplomacy

    Clearly, we have not yet obtained the results from sanctions that we anticipated. Instead of continuing to barrel down this path, which Iranian authorities perceive as an attempt at regime change, we need to engage in a robust diplomatic effort. Without a serious and concerted effort to open negotiations, Iran could construe our extensive pressure campaign as a state of undeclared war and respond with a preemptive strike.

    We need to convey to Iran that it has a choice to make: it must decide whether it wants to remain an oil power, or relinquish that position in a misguided effort to become a nuclear weapons power. We need to illustrate how the decision to remain—and improve as—an oil power is intelligent, logical, and attractive.

    Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, has just said, “I believe all issues can be easily solved through negotiations, but this time, we want the talks to be serious, it should not be fake.” Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, has called on the P5+1 to resume talks. Meanwhile the United States is actively taking steps to prevent any Iranian oil exports and pushing to prevent any fund transfers to or from Iran via the international clearing operation SWIFT. Following the actions by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives last December to prevent Iranian oil exports, Senator Joseph Lieberman has gathered signatures that indicate Iran should not even be allowed to have a nuclear capability—we are no longer talking about nuclear weapons. To no one’s surprise, this week’s visit to Iran by the IAEA did not go well. When the IAEA experts requested to visit and inspect a military site, the Iranian government refused access.

    We do not currently have bilateral diplomatic relations with Iran; all communication is done indirectly through the Swiss embassy in Tehran and via sanctions imposed by our legislative branch. The offer of opening up diplomatic relations—in which we directly communicate with those in positions of power—would certainly go a long way in signaling the seriousness of our intent.

    If we in the West wish to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, we need to adopt a more nuanced approach that is also backed by real commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Letting the IAEA engage in regular inspections, without threatening military strikes or regime change, would go a long way in ensuring a more agreeable and peaceful future. This requires an almost colossal shift in foreign policy, as well as substantial time for Iran to come to believe in the sincerity of our words and actions.

    The Iranian regime seeks legitimacy and assurances of no foreign attempts at regime change. If the United States and other powers are willing to give the regime what it requires and let regime change occur when the Iranian people demand it, we can live with an Iran that has the ability to make a nuclear device, but does not go that route because of very strong supervision and safeguards.
    And just maybe, we will set an effective, peaceful precedent for dealing with the inevitable increase in nuclear-equipped nations in the Gulf and the Middle East.

    Fariborz Ghadar is a senior adviser and distinguished scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.