The Iran Problem Awaiting Bush or Kerry

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NEWSHA TAVAKOLIAN / POLARIS

Show of Strength: Authorities in Tehran mount a display of missiles with a poster of Ayatollah Khameini

While Tehran's unprecedented "endorsement" of President Bush raised some eyebrows this week, Iran hasnt been much of an issue in the Presidential campaign. But as international efforts to confront the Islamic Republic's nuclear program enter a critical phase, there's little doubt Iran will be at the top of a new administration's agenda. And as the exchange between President Bush and Senator Kerry in the first presidential debate showed, there are not many good options.

Asked how he would curb Iran's suspected nuclear-arms ambitions, President replied: "I hope we can do the same thing [as in the administration's multilateral diplomatic approach North Korea], continue to work with the world to convince the Iranian mullahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. We worked very closely with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Great Britain, who have been the folks delivering the message to the mullahs that if you expect to be part of the world of nations, get rid of your nuclear programs."

Senator Kerry scolded the administration for its "obsession" with Iraq, and charged that this had distracted it from a more pressing threat in Iran, leaving it forced to simply rely on a European diplomatic initiative. But Kerry's own proposals are not substantially different from the deal being offered by the Europeans — with Bush administration consent, albeit grudging — to Iranian officials at a meeting in Vienna on Thursday.

The Europeans will ask Iran to give up all uranium enrichment activities — permissible as part of its civilian energy program under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Tehran subscribes, but also the key component of any potential bomb program — in exchange for Western undertakings to supply and remove (spent) nuclear fuel. It will also offer trade deals, and possibly a light-water nuclear reactor (which can't produce bomb-grade material), and other unspecified sweeteners. Iran, which denies developing a bomb program but nonetheless insists on its right to develop the full range of nuclear energy infrastructure permissible under the NPT (which would dramatically shorten its time line to achieve weapons status should it withdraw from the treaty) reportedly plans to offer a deal of its own to satisfy Western concerns over its intentions. Still, nobody is particularly optimistic about a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

Washington Divided, Tehran Divided

For one thing, it's far from clear that the divergent positions of Washington and Tehran can be reconciled. The Bush administration has made clear it has no intention of offering Iran concessions outside of the strict terms of a nuclear energy deal, but Tehran may be inclined to hold out for guarantees against any attempt to change its regime, and for a wider restoration of political and diplomatic relations with the West. The Bush administration has long been divided on how to deal with Iran: While its "realist" wing has advocated engagement with the regime in Tehran, the neoconservative hawks who championed the Iraq war have long advocated an aggressive pursuit of regime change in Iran. That goal may, ironically, have been stymied rather than advanced by the situation in Iraq, where U.S. hopes for a positive outcome now depend partly on cooperation from Tehran, which certainly has more influence than the U.S. and its allies do over the major political forces among Iraq's Shiite majority. Still, the administration's internal debate persists, its policy currently locked into a holding pattern somewhere between the stools of regime-change and engagement.

Tehran, too, is divided. The flagging reform movement around President Mohammed Khatami, which seeks greater engagement with the West, has been largely eclipsed by more hard-line clerics emboldened by the presence of the "Great Satan" on Iran's doorstep. Rather than unambiguously pursue a nuclear weapon — a matter of ongoing debate among Iran's power centers, according to analysts — the Islamic Republic appears to have decided to put in place the maximum nuclear infrastructure permissible under the NPT, in order to facilitate rapid conversion to a bomb program should this option be chosen. But it's no simple split between hard-liners and reformers: Even the conservative clerics led by Ayatollah Ali Khameini want relations with the West, particularly trade and investment to kick-start their decrepit economy. They've actually taken charge of the nuclear negotiations with the Europeans — an encouraging development, given the fact that they hold the levers of power. They're willing to talk, but their rhetoric of self-sufficiency suggests won't easily accept a deal that leaves them wholly dependent on the good offices of the West to provide the fuel for their nuclear energy program.

The confrontation over Iran's nuclear program has stirred up strong nationalist feelings in Iran, and support from much of the developing world for Tehran's position. Many of the developing nations who are signatory to the NPT see hypocrisy in the Western position, on the grounds that the treaty's purpose was to promote civilian nuclear energy, and pursue universal nuclear disarmament, not to maintain the nuclear-weapons monopoly of what had once been the Big Five but now looks more like the Big Eight (or Nine, if North Korea's claims are to be believed). Tehran also likes to draw Israel into the equation, accusing the West of a double standard for turning a blind eye to the Jewish State's nuclear capability. Politically and diplomatically, Iran may well feel it has substantial leeway in which to play hardball.

Who Needs a Nuke?

The strategic incentives for Iran to weigh going nuclear are obvious. For a regime on the United States' hit-list, nuclear weapons may provide a failsafe survival kit — compare the fates of North Korea and Iraq. Iran launched its program at a time when its three most immediate enemies — the U.S., Israel and Saddam Hussein's Iraq — all held, or were in the process of developing, a strategic nuclear threat. And the drive for strategic parity with (or superiority over) rivals is a basic instinct of all nation-states.

Iran's decision to work under the terms of the NPT to assemble the building blocks of a bomb program have cruelly exposed the limits of the treaty. Some of the previously undisclosed locations turned up in recent inspections also suggest that Iran may have built redundancies into its fuel cycle infrastructure — creating more than one facility capable of fulfilling the same function — an essential part of a clandestine program because it allows continuity even if one location is discovered and subjected to inspection or destroyed. Even if it remains undecided over pursuing nuclear weapons, building the infrastructure that would eventually it within a year of weapons capability could itself sway the decision. After all, once nuclear weapons are within reach, the arithmetic changes: A nuclear-armed India or Pakistan were once as "unacceptable" in the West as a nuclear-armed North Korea was until it, too, purportedly became a reality. Until now, the pattern has been that once a state acquires the bomb, the rest have no option but to engage it in respectful dialogue.

Can Sanctions Deter Tehran?

Should the European deal fail to interest Tehran, the next step for the U.S. and its allies would be to upbraid Iran at the UN Security Council and begin the process of pursuing comprehensive international sanctions against it. Even though the major European powers have indicated they'll back Washington on sanctions if diplomacy fails, the going may yet be tough in international forums given the widespread sympathy for Iran's position, and skepticism of the underlying motivations of the major powers.

Still, sanctions would carry some weight, for the simple reason that even the hardliners in Tehran are desperate to reintegrate their economy with the West. Failure to generate jobs and wellbeing in Iran may be an even greater threat to the survival of the regime than the battle plans of Washington's neocons. One third of Iran's trade comes from the European Union, and Tehran's economic model is heavily dependent on the prospect of attracting significant foreign investment. On the other hand, Iran is a major oil supplier and conditions in the current world market would likely undermine prospects for sanctions. The recent vote on Sudan over the Darfur crisis made that clear — China, which imports most of Sudan's oil, voted against, and it's growing demand would make it unlikely to back sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Sanctions are also a limited response. If Iraq then actually manages to produce a nuclear weapon, as North Korea claims to have done, the sanctions regime becomes hard to sustain.

Military Options

If the position of the U.S. and also Israel is that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is intolerable, either may be inclined to take preemptive military action — as Israel did in its 1981 air strike on Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak. To be effective, however, a pinpoint strike requires intelligence on the precise location of all of the relevant nuclear facilities, some of which are believed to be hidden in hardened, camouflaged urban locations. It would also require preparation for the likelihood that Iran would likely respond with missile and guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and via its Hezbollah proxy on Israel.

But bombing suspected nuclear facilities only kicks the can down the road. Once the decision is made to use military force, the inclination may be to finish the regime — if only as a hedge against the resumption of nuclear activity in more clandestine, and more aggressive forms, as well as ongoing retaliation.

Osirak highlights the problem left by even a successful pinpoint strike — ten years later, UN inspectors found that Iraq had been far further along the road to building nuclear weapons than anyone had anticipated. The preemptive strike had simply forced it to diversify and conceal its methods.

If regime-change was the goal of military action, of course, the operation would require far more troops than the U.S. currently has in Iraq. Iran, after all, is three times the size, and its people can be expected to be no more welcoming of an occupation than the Iraqis are. Tehran will be encouraged by the extent to which Iraq has stretched U.S. combat capability. Particularly to the extent that it remains tied down in Iraq, it's hard to imagine Washington finding the resources to mount a full-blown invasion and occupation of Iran, and fewer allies than it has in Iraq.

For now, both sides will likely play a waiting game. The U.S. has an election to get through on home soil in November, and then one in Iraq in January. Meanwhile, the Iranians will likely use the leeway of the NPT to the maximum, possibly submitting to extra inspection provisions in exchange for concessions on other fronts after protracted negotiations. If, on the other hand, Tehran is not irrevocably committed to nuclear weapons, it may nonetheless hold out for more attractive political and economic terms — under present circumstances, they may see little gain from desisting on weapons if such a choice leaves U.S. hostility to the regime in Tehran unchanged. Much depends on the state of Iran's internal discussions over nuclear weapons. And on the back channel talks that will inevitably occur between Tehran and Washington, regardless of the state of public relations between the two: What with the fate of al-Qaeda detainees in Iran, the future of Iranian resistance groups dubbed terrorists by the State Department but nonetheless kept intact by the U.S. in Iraq, and Tehran's role in helping stabilize post-Saddam Iraq, they have plenty to talk about even before they touch on nuclear weapons.

It's a high-stakes game in which neither side can easily afford to be seen to be backing down. Still, events may yet conspire to force both sides to retreat from the path of confrontation.