U.S. Policy toward Iran
November 29, 2010
Economic difficulties in Iran have been increasing, partially due to Western sanctions but mostly due to economic mismanagement and corruption by the regime. Iranian policymakers will soon need to rescind and remove subsidies on products as varied as gasoline, bread, sugar, and electricity. The removal of subsidies will further erode confidence in President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, as well as the ruling establishment. Already there is talk of impeaching the president, and were it not for the support of Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini Khamenei, his tenure would soon end.
Some credit may be given to progress the Obama administration has had in tightening sanctions against the Iranian regime. But should more be done to bring about meaningful change in Iranian policy? Despite the economic difficulties, Iran continues to gain influence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. Iran is strengthening the military capability of the Revolutionary Guard Corps while continuing to enrich uranium.
It is likely that Iran views the United States as being preoccupied with its own stagnant economy, desiring to withdraw from the region, and unwilling and unlikely to engage in yet another war. In order to assure that the United States will not engage in military action, the Iranian regime will not take any direct provocative action against the United States or Israel, despite harsher U.S.-led economic sanctions and unidentified cyber attacks.
Yet two years into the Obama administration and despite the success of tightened sanctions, many wonder if the United States has a clear longer-term policy toward Iran.
The following discussion evaluates various policy options available to the United States and asks what our posture should be in the coming months when the Iranian regime is likely to face new economic challenges and has to implement a number of unpopular and difficult economic actions that can potentially stir unrest.
Q1: Should the United States allow Iran to maintain a nuclear enrichment program under a strict monitoring system?
A1: On the surface, answering “yes” seems to be reasonable. All parties and factions in Iran perceive their nuclear program as a source of national pride. Furthermore, Iran, like many other nations that are signatories to the nonproliferation treaty, has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regulations.
However, the difficulties with this option are numerous. First, the United States, Israel, and a few other Western nations are convinced that Iran is pursuing a nuclear military capability and cannot be trusted. In fact, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said he does not believe Iran is not interested in developing nuclear weapon capabilities “for a second.” Furthermore, the new Republicans in Congress are unlikely to support allowing Iran to maintain a nuclear enrichment program. Finally, Iran has not shown a willingness to open up inspections to the degree that would provide the necessary assurances the West desires.
Q2: Should the United States take actions that enhance the credibility of the military option?
A2: Preparing contingency plans and conducting regular joint military maneuvers with our partners in the Gulf and Israel would signal the seriousness of our military option. This can be supported with periodic actions against Iranian interests and assets in the region. These actions could be retaliatory or strategic. Yet it is questionable if our allies in the Gulf will feel comfortable and support such maneuvers, and it is feared that this would aggravate and complicate situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other areas in the Gulf.
Q3: Should we take military action against Iran?
A3: Military action in the case of Iran would likely not include Iraq- or Afghanistan-type invasions. The country is too vast, and our military is stretched and would likely not support such an invasion. Military action would thus be limited to strategic bombings of key facilities and assets that are nuclear, military, or industrial in nature. As many military experts have noted, this will only delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and if they are not intent on obtaining nuclear bombs now, they are likely to pursue that avenue afterward. Iran’s regional response is also unpredictable and would likely cause problems for our armed forces in the region. It could present problems for Lebanon and possibly for our allies in the Gulf. It is also likely to further alienate the Muslim world. While it is easy to talk tough, I prefer the reasoning offered in a recent Stimson Center–U.S. Institute of Peace report, which states that pressure should be prudently pursued rather than resorting to “language of confrontation, threats, or insults.”
The likelihood of military strikes bringing about regime change is at best optimistic and even fanciful. Military strikes would likely result in the Iranian populace strongly supporting a regime that at present they may be in disagreement with.
Q4: Should we support the Turkey/Brazil/Iran swap deal and continue to negotiate with a firmer timetable?
A4: Using Turkey as a mediator, agreeing to a modified fuel swap and continuing negotiations is another reasonable option, except that Iran has been negotiating for years as it continues to enrich uranium and expand its nuclear capability. A firm timetable must be insisted on with clear benchmarks. It is questionable whether this is achievable, but at least some portion of the uranium enriched at the 3.5 percent level will be transferred to Turkey, and Iran will agree not to further concentrate the uranium to even the 20 percent level for its medical research facility.
Q5: Should we have patience and wait for the Iranian regime to get itself into trouble?
A5: Some experts believe that the regime is facing substantial economic difficulties, and with the removal of most subsidies, it is likely that Iran will have a more reasonable international posture. In fact, the Iranian decision to come to the table is a result of economic difficulties and of pressure the Majlis (the Iranian parliament) has been putting on Ahmadinejad. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even went as far as to suggest that Ahmadinejad had been understating and lying to the supreme leader about the magnitude of the economic difficulties.
The difficulty with patience without action is that it could take many years for results to materialize, years in which the Revolutionary Guard increases its influence and moves the Iranian regime further toward a military dictatorship. Also, expecting the populace to rise again without direction in the face of the brutality shown by the regime may be optimistic at best. Recently, the Iranian regime, in anticipation of removing sanctions, positioned military police and armored vehicles along the streets.
Q6: Should we help accelerate the regime getting itself in trouble?
A6: Others argue with some accuracy that the regime is likely to face accelerated economic difficulties in the coming months. The continued tougher sanctions and financial constraints placed on Iran have had some effect and should be continued. However, we should be prepared to highlight the continued economic difficulties Iran has caused for itself. The dismal economic performance, the dissatisfaction of the labor movements, the strikes that have been experienced and are likely to increase, and the brutal manner the regime uses to suppress the dissatisfaction should be highly publicized. In the event of political unrest caused by economic hardships, we should be prepared to negotiate from a position of strength. This assumes that this regime will continue, so we need to be prepared to negotiate seriously.
Q7: Should we push for regime change when and if the opportunity arises?
A7: Regime change at present seems to be difficult to predict. The regime will likely respond to any significant uprising in a brutal and firm manner. The opposition is fragmented, without effective organizational capabilities or even a viable leader, so a change in government appears to be fantasy at this point. Regime change is only likely when key elements of the economy and political system are ready to rise in opposition. A national strike by oil, industrial, and government officials is a prerequisite for such a change, and that does not appear to be in the cards at this time.
U.S. policy at present seems to be a continued push for tougher sanctions, global financial constraints on the regime, and talking tough. We, along with our European intermediaries, have gradually increased the sticks and removed the carrots from the negotiating table. To a large extent, we have had a policy of “nonengagement.” Many argue that nonengagement is no policy at all. Iran has now agreed to sit down again in December for another round of negotiations. Given pre-negotiation comments by both sides, it is likely that this meeting will not achieve any significant breakthrough; however, given the economic difficulties we anticipate Iran to experience as it implements its required economic austerity steps, we are in a better position now than in the recent past to make some progress.
Iran is at the heart of an extremely volatile yet important region. It can play a vital role in Afghanistan, as it did in 2001 in removing the Taliban. It is an important party to contend with in any Iraq policy. Even if the Iranian nuclear program is not acceptable to the United States at this time, the administration needs to start talking more openly in order to have the ability to more effectively orchestrate a combination of the above options.
The Iranian regime is a theocracy with strong Revolutionary Guard influences. Despite this reality and the often outrageous statements by Ahmadinejad, since the 1979 revolution and through the Iraq-Iran war and numerous sanctions, Iran has conducted foreign policy in a rational manner, always carefully assessing its options and behaving with its interests well calculated. Iran has been obstinate, proud, and often ambitious. It is vulnerable and thus often paranoid. This is understandable. Iran has a young, educated population with hardly a memory of the Islamic Revolution, desperate for jobs that Ahmadinejad and the regime have not been able to provide. Now the general public and even the poor are going to face the removal of many subsidies. The meager money handed out by Ahmadinejad will not even partially compensate for the increase in the cost of living that will follow the subsidy removals.
Under these conditions, we should be in a position to assess and decide among these options and, if desirable, be able to offer a rope for the Iranians to climb out of the hole they have dug for themselves. The option should be a credible promise of reconciliation and specific economic benefits if Iran addresses our concerns, rather than tough talk and harsher sanctions. With the reality of Iran’s coming economic crisis, we may find that we have more reasonable options than nonengagement with continued tough sanctions, which so far have not resolved any of our concerns. To do this, we need to get engaged.
Fariborz Ghadar is a distinguished scholar and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions 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).
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