These must be heady days for Iran's ayatollahs. Just a year ago, American efforts to contain and isolate the Islamic Republic seemed to be gathering steam. A third UN Security Council resolution censuring Iran for its nuclear advances was on the horizon, and the Bush administration could claim headway on the creation of a regional coalition of Sunni Arab states to counteract Iran's growing clout. Today, however, things are very different. Western efforts to control and contain the Islamic Republic have clearly faltered, while Iran's march toward the bomb gives every indication of having accelerated.
This reversal of fortune has a great deal to do with the recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. Since its release in December of last year, that document, with its controversial (and widely disputed) finding that Iran halted its work on nuclear weapons back in the fall of 2003, has turned American policy toward Iran on its head.
Technically, of course, nothing has changed. Iran is still close to an offensive nuclear capability — and is getting closer. Even before the Iranian government's announcement this April that it was bringing an additional 6,000 centrifuges online, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre had estimated that the regime's existing inventory of 3,000 — if operated at "full efficiency" — could generate enough fissile material for a bomb by sometime this fall. Even if Iran's centrifuges worked only a quarter of the time, the Centre said, Tehran would still have enough highly enriched uranium to field a weapon by the end of 2010. And once it does, nuclear scientists say, building such a device would be only a matter of weeks.
Politically, however, everything is different. The NIE's claim that the Iranian regime ceased its work on nuclear weapons has torpedoed the viability of an American military reaction. And without such an option, the White House's efforts to cobble together a regional coalition against the Islamic Republic are on the ropes. During his January trip to the Middle East, President Bush reportedly spent a great deal of time distancing himself from the findings of his own intelligence community. The damage, however, was already done. Countries in Iran's immediate neighborhood appear for all the world to have lost confidence in America's ability to contain Iran's rising nuclear ambitions. Others, meanwhile, have gone back to business as usual; since December, in a clear sign of the crumbling international consensus about Iran, China, Malaysia, and Switzerland have all signed new energy deals worth billions of dollars with the Islamic Republic.
No wonder the Iranian leadership is feeling confident. "The nuclear issue is the most important political development in contemporary history," Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told his supporters in the central Iranian city of Natanz in early April. "Iran's victory in this biggest political battle will lead to new international developments."
Given this sorry state of affairs, it's perhaps not surprising that more than a few Washington players, regardless of their political stripes, have gravitated toward the idea of dialogue. Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has famously called for a "surge of diplomacy" with the Islamic Republic to mirror the military surge taking place next door in Iraq. A growing number of Middle East scholars and senior statesmen have also come out in favor of some sort of engagement with the Islamic Republic. Even the Bush administration, once adamantly opposed to the idea of normalization with Tehran, now appears to be steadily drifting toward some sort of détente with Iran's ayatollahs.
In principle, this would seem to make good sense. Iran's strategic location, its growing political power on the world stage, and the maturity of its nuclear effort all make the idea of some sort of accommodation quite compelling. But in practice, a constructive dialogue with Tehran is likely to prove difficult to achieve — and even harder to sustain.
For one thing, America needs someone to negotiate with, and at least for the moment, the Iranian regime seems less than eager to come to the table. Since the start of the War on Terror, Iran's foreign and defense policies have been informed by one imperative: ensuring regime survival. Ordinarily, this instinct could be expected to make Tehran more open to the idea of talks with Washington. But Iran's leaders, surveying their recent strategic successes and the lack of a robust American response to them, appear to have reached a very different conclusion: that their current course will reap greater long-term benefits than any arrangement they might be able to make with the United States.
Furthermore, any such negotiations are likely to be disastrous for America's standing in the Middle East. If recent polling is any indication, few in the United States and Europe actually believe that Iran's intentions are benign and its nuclear ambitions peaceful. In the Persian Gulf, closer to concrete instances of Iran's international misbehavior, that percentage is smaller still. Washington's participation in direct negotiations, therefore, is likely to be perceived locally as an implicit acquiescence to a new Iranian-dominated regional order — with devastating consequences for America's position in the Middle East and its efforts in the wider War on Terror.
The most compelling reason for avoiding a "grand bargain" with Tehran, however, has to do with the Iranians themselves. The Islamic Republic is in the throes of a massive demographic transition. According to official regime statistics, nearly half of Iran's population of 70 million is aged 24 or younger. And this constituency, deeply disillusioned with the Islamic Revolution, is largely Western-looking in orientation. The country's current ruling elite, by contrast, is aging and ill, lacking serious popular support from the Iranian "street." Under these circumstances, a deal with the current leadership could well yield tactical, short-term benefits. But the long-term cost would be enormous: the alienation of Iran's young, pro-Western population, a vibrant constituency that will ultimately determine that country's political dispositions.
Instead of "engagement," officials in the current administration — and especially in the next one — should be thinking carefully about four concrete goals by which to underpin a new, robust approach toward Iran.
The first involves assuring American allies. On the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom in late 2002, there was just one declared nuclear aspirant in the Persian Gulf: Iran itself. Today, no fewer than 10 other Middle Eastern nations — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Jordan, and Turkey — have embarked upon national or regional nuclear programs. The timing is not coincidental; most of these countries are deeply apprehensive about the emerging "Iranian bomb" and are actively seeking strategic counterweights to it.
Preventing the resulting arms race now taking shape in the region will require far greater American investments in Gulf security. The Bush administration's January announcement of a $20 billion arms package to Saudi Arabia was a step in this direction. So are the U.S. Central Command's evolving plans for the Gulf Security Dialogue, a regional mechanism partnering the United States with regional militaries on counterterrorism, intelligence, and defense issues. But if Washington hopes to control — or at least to manage — regional proliferation trends, additional measures of this sort will undoubtedly be necessary. Otherwise, Washington may soon face not one new nuclear power in the Middle East, but many.
The second priority deals with deterring Iranian rogue behavior. Conventional wisdom has it that December's NIE has effectively taken an American military option off the table. As political commentator Morton Kondracke has put it, "The finding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 ended any possibility that Bush could win support for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities." True, the idea of American action directed against Iran's atomic program now seems, on balance, to be rather farfetched. But on at least one front — counterinsurgency — the United States still wields a credible military option. What it has lacked up until now is the political will to enforce "red lines" with regard to Iranian rogue behavior.
This amounts to a major oversight. In his April testimony to Congress, Gen. David Petraeus stressed Iran's role in "funding, training, arming, and directing" Iraq's various Shi'ite sectarian militias, terming these groups to "pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq." Since then, that support has been eroded considerably, thanks in large part to the efforts of the increasingly assertive government of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. But preventing a resurgence of Iranian influence remains essential to the success of the U.S. mission in Iraq and a prerequisite for long-term stability there. The message to Iran, therefore, must be clear and unequivocal, delivered in both word and deed: continued troublemaking will carry concrete consequences, up to and including the use of force.
The third goal of U.S. policy should be to dissuade Iran from pursuing WMD. Back in October 2002, North Korea confronted the United States with an unprecedented challenge when it disclosed that it had clandestinely developed a nuclear capability. North Korea's nuclear breakout has successfully stymied American strategy in Asia since, and the lesson has not been lost on Iran's ayatollahs. The Iranian regime has been working tirelessly on its nuclear program, animated by the conviction that it needs to go nuclear like North Korea, lest it end up like Iraq. Simply put, Iran's ayatollahs have become convinced that the stability of their regime is directly correlated to the maturity of their nuclear effort.
The key to chilling Tehran's enthusiasm for the bomb, therefore, hinges upon inverting that equation. Through a stronger mix of economic measures (from targeted sanctions to a gasoline embargo) and financial/logistical support for diverse opposition groups inside and outside the country, the United States can craft a policy that makes Iran's nuclear progress inversely proportional to regime stability. Such steps, if taken resolutely and explicitly linked to Tehran's nuclear intransigence, will go a long way toward convincing the Iranian regime that if it wants to stay in business, it must get out of the nuclear business.
The fourth objective needs to be the defense of American assets and allies. Back in February 2003, Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's foreign minister at the time, sat down with the conservative daily Siyasat-e Rouz for a wide-ranging interview. Kharrazi used that occasion to outline his regime's doctrine of "defensive deterrence," a military strategy incorporating the use of asymmetric warfare and terrorist proxies against the superior conventional forces of the United States and the Coalition.
Some five and a half years on, "defensive deterrence" remains very much in vogue among Iran's warfighters, and nuclear acquisition will have little impact on this game plan. After all, Iran's ayatollahs know full well that their conventional military cannot stand toe-to-toe with Coalition forces. So a bomb in Iran's basement is not likely to yield a qualitatively new military strategy, but rather an intensification in the scope and reach of the current one. The United States needs to plan accordingly, hardening its "soft targets" — including embassies throughout the region and provisional reconstruction teams (PRTs) now operating in Iraq — and reinforcing its security assistance to vulnerable local allies. Just as importantly, it must curtail Iran's ability to support terrorist surrogates in the region in the years ahead.
Above all, policymakers in Washington should harbor no illusions about the nature of the Iranian regime. Now nearly 30 years old, the Islamic Republic remains a radical, revolutionary state—one which, according to U.S. government estimates, serves both as the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism and the "central banker" of it. Its demise would be a net benefit for global security and a blessing to its own captive population.
For all its public pronouncements, the Bush administration has stopped far short of unequivocally supporting such a goal. Come January, the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will need to decide whether he will go further than his predecessor in supporting real change within Iran. Before he can do so, however, the next president will need a strategy for holding the line against the rising regional power of a nearly nuclear Iran. The stability of the greater Middle East, and our long-term interests there, depends on it.