Wednesday, October 18, 2006

CACNP Briefing on U.S. Policy Options Towards Iran

On Tuesday, October 17, 2006, the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation sponsored a Senate briefing on US Policy Options for Iran featuring Dr. Ted Galen Carpenter of Cato Institute and Dr. Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council. The following is a summary of the presentations and the question and answer period.

Dr. Carpenter began his presentation questioning why Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons? After all, weaponization is dangerous, contributes to the security dilemma, could trigger a regional arms race, and will put Iran on the United States’ bad side.

He offered that one reason Iran is pursuing a nuclear program is for prestige. Countries that go nuclear are more respected. India and Pakistan have gained far more international respect since their 1998 nuclear weapon tests. Iran is a proud civilization with a rich cultural heritage and they believe they have a natural right to nuclear power.

A second reason is possibly because of regional security concerns. Iran seeks to deter potential opponents, especially those that already have nuclear weapons like India, Pakistan, Russia, and Israel. Iran resides in what even Israel has dubbed a “rough neighborhood” and wants to protect itself. Iran aspires to be a regional hegemon and bully surrounding states. Nuclear weapons will help them do this.

The most salient reason is Iran’s concerns about the U.S. Nuclear weapons are desired to deter American attempts at regime change. The lesson Iran takes from the American invasion of Iraq is that nuclear weapons are the only way to prevent an American invasion. North Korea further illustrates this precedent.

How can the international community prevent a nuclear Iran? What are the options? Dr. Carpenter outlined six options, which are detailed in his new policy analysis, "Iran’s Nuclear Program: America’s Policy Options."

1. Negotiations by the EU3

A report was released on October 17, 2006 announcing that the EU3 had completed its work. In other words, this approach has completely failed.

2. UN Security Council Sanctions

Any sanctions will be relatively mild at first. They will undoubtedly be weaker than the sanctions imposed on North Korea for their nuclear test. And, China and Russia oppose strict sanctions on Iran.

Dr. Carpenter doesn’t expect multilateral sanctions to be effective. The reason is that multilateral sanctions are historically plagued by defections. Potential defectors include Russia, China, India, and Japan. The only time multilateral sanctions worked historically was against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Sanctions typically sound better than they actually work.

3. Regime change through subversion

The favored approach of American Neoconservatives, regime change through subversion is the same policy they endorsed against Iraq 6-7 years ago. Many Iranians would resent regime change. They have good memories and remember the American coup against Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953 which led to the re-installment of the Shah Reza Pahlavi.

4. American aerial strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities

This is the second favorite approach of American Neoconservatives. Many mistakenly believe that the U.S. is too tied down in Iraq to carry out a successful military strike against Iran. While our ground forces may be overextended, our Navy and Air Force would have no problem carrying out this operation.

Dr. Carpenter believes this would be a terrible mistake because: 1) we don’t know where all the Iranian nuclear facilities are; 2) collateral damage would be huge because many of the facilities are located near population centers; and 3) we will only delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program, not eliminate it.

5. Deterrence

Dr. Carpenter believes this should always be the U.S. default option when it comes to nascent nuclear states.

Some mistakenly suggest that the Iranian mullahs are suicidal and undeterrable, but people used to same the same thing about Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. The Johnson and Nixon administrations actually contemplated preventive military strikes against Chinese nuclear facilities in the 1960’s but ultimately decided against them. There is no evidence indicating that Iranian political leaders are undeterrable. After all, how many of them are going out on suicide missions?

6. “The Grand Bargain”

This is Dr. Carpenter’s favored approach and would be a drastic change in policy of both governments.

The U.S. should offer Iran: 1) a security guarantee and 2) to normalize relations. Iran, in exchange, should agree to immediate, unobstructed, rigorous, on-demand inspections of all of its nuclear facilities.

Dr. Carpenter believes this plan has no downside. It would smoke out the Iranian regime once and for all to discover if they really do just want peaceful nuclear power or if their goal is indeed nuclear weapons. If the Iranians reject this offer, they clearly are only interested in nuclear weapons. If they accept, they simply want nuclear power.

Dr. Trita Parsi began his remarks by noting that the U.S. lacks a coherent strategy towards Iran. All we have is a set of tactics. We lack a geopolitical approach and instead favor an ideological approach. Furthermore, U.S. policy over the past 15 years has pushed Iran into the sphere of influence of Russia and China, both countries that will undoubtedly be the next strategic great power competitors of the U.S.

Iran wants a global ally and most importantly, it wants to be allied with the U.S. This is due in large part because the other options (the EU, Russia and China) are less attractive global allies.

We should keep in mind that many of Iran’s political elites today were educated in the U.S. and they are still sending their children to the U.S. to be educated when they can. Because of U.S. sanctions and stricter restrictions since 9/11, more Iranian students are going to Russia and China to be educated. This means that future Iranian leaders are being influenced by these countries.

Iran has tried to mend fences with the U.S. in the past. Iran doesn’t have any friendly neighbors. Russia has historically been unfriendly and has captured Iranian territory in the past. Europe is suffering through a cultural crisis and has proven itself incompatible with Middle Eastern immigrants.

The U.S. approach towards China has been to not contain it. Since it’s so big, we must work with it and especially cooperate economically. What American policymakers fail to realize is that Iran is the China of the Middle East. Iran has 70 million people while its neighbors have 10-20 million.

Under President Clinton, we envisioned a “New Middle East.” The weakest link of this vision was the Middle East Peace Process. A main component of U.S. strategy during the Clinton administration was to contain Iran through isolation and confrontation. President Clinton intensified the conflict with Iran, namely through the Iran Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. But even when the U.S. was at its military peak in the 1990’s, we still couldn’t contain Iran. Secretary Rice going to the Middle East and telling the Arab countries that Iran is a threat resembles the isolation policy pursued by Clinton.

The war in Iraq has weakened the U.S. but strengthened Iran. Meanwhile, Iran has increased its relations with the EU, Russia and China.

Democratization in Iran is more likely to take place when tensions between the U.S. and Iran are not as high.

We must engage in direct talks with Iran on a variety of issues as soon as possible. We could win important concessions if we don’t demand any preconditions to these talks. While dialogues may not succeed, the absence of any dialogue will guarantee failure. We need to talk to Iran precisely because it is a country that doesn’t have an inherent strategic interest to weaponize. We can influence that decision if we adopt a different approach.

Question and Answer

1. Why would Iran be prepared to accept a grand bargain?

Dr. Carpenter: A grand bargain would be a huge carrot for Iran. We should ignore human rights initially because they are too contentious but everything else should be on the table.

Dr. Parsi: How will we know that Iran won’t accept a grand bargain if we don’t try? We haven’t even tried yet.

2. How have European-Iranian relations developed recently?

Dr. Parsi: Even though they have declined recently over the nuclear issue, they are still better now than they were in the early 1990’s.

3. Why did the “pistachios and carpets” deal fail with Iran previously?

Dr. Parsi: The rejection of this deal was a huge mistake by the Iranians

4. Don’t questions about internal Iranian regime dynamics—the dynamics that torpedoed the “pistachios and carpets” deal—still exist?

Dr. Parsi: Yes, but the dynamics are still more favorable for a grand bargain than they were during previous times.

5. Are we too distracted by North Korea and Iraq? If negotiations drag on, will the U.S. have the patience for it?

Dr. Carpenter: If we have to choose between DPRK and Iran, we must choose Iran. Negotiations with North Korea can be outsourced to Japan, South Korea, and China. With Iran, however, the U.S. must spearhead any diplomatic effort. The longer we wait to engage in direct talks, the closer Iran gets to a nuclear weapons capability. And as North Korea has demonstrated, once a country weaponizes, it is usually too late.

Dr. Parsi: The absence of direct talks has enabled Iran’s nuclear program.

6. What if the grand bargain fails? What then?

Dr. Carpenter: Deterrence will become the only feasible option. We will have to get used to a nuclear Iran. It is very alarming that there are two nascent nuclear states that the U.S. doesn’t have an ongoing relationship with.

Dr. Parsi: A grand bargain implies that everything is on the table, not necessarily that the bargain will be achieved quickly or without prolonged effort.

7. What are the threats Iran faces in the Middle East?

Dr. Carpenter: Iran has a historically rocky relationship with Russia. It also faces nuclear threats from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel.

Dr. Parsi: Iran actually believes nuclear weapons are useful for deterring the U.S., not other regional actors. They have alternative methods for deterring Israel, primarily through Hezbollah and Hamas. Dr. Parsi believes that Iran actually seeks only to become a latent nuclear power, meaning it can weaponize quickly if confronted with a serious threat. After all, if Iran gets the bomb it will spark a regional arms race (probably including Saudi Arabia and Egypt) that will undermine Iran’s comparative advantage if it remained simply a latent nuclear power.

8. How can Iran not see nuclear weapons as a potential deterrent to Israel?

Dr. Parsi: Iran only became alarmed by Israeli nuclear weapons 4-5 years ago. Prior to that, Iran consider Israel a political threat more than a military threat.

9. What does the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran mean to the NPT and international nonproliferation regime?

Dr. Carpenter: The NPT isn’t dead, but it’s definitely on life support. It had a good run—four decades—but no policy lasts forever. Japan and South Korea are already calling for nuclear weapons in response to the recent test by North Korea. In ten years, we may have around twelve members of the nuclear club.

Dr. Parsi: This is exactly why talks are so important with Iran. We can’t let Iran go the nuclear route. The nonproliferation regime is likely to collapse if we don’t intervene. We need to talk to Iran precisely because it is a country that doesn’t have an inherent strategic interest to weaponize. We can influence that decision if we adopt a different approach.

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