Patrick Clawson is deputy director for research of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He received his Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research and is widely published. He is senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.
Why does the Iranian nuclear program pose such a threat to U.S. interests? The first reason is the character of Islamic republic. Its supreme leader states repeatedly that Israel should be wiped off the earth, and such frightening statements are backed up by the a long history of sponsoring terrorism. These include the American embassy hostage taking, blowing up of U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and the blowing up of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Iranian officials even admit that key Al-Qaeda leaders are still on Iranian territory. While Iran claims they are under arrest, these Al-Qaeda members were still able to call Saudi Arabia to order bombings there.
Besides the Islamic Republic itself, there are other reasons for concern regarding Iran's nuclear aspirations. Arab countries in the region do not have nuclear weapons, and are dissatisfied with the status quo. If Iran acquired nuclear arms, it would provoke a nuclear arms race in the region.
During the Iran-Iraq War, for example, the Saudis bought long-range missiles from the Chinese that it could arm with nuclear warheads. The Saudis could easily keep Pakistani nuclear warheads on these missiles and remain in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty by simply seeing that the Pakistanis had a key to the nuclear warheads.
The Egyptians might also decide that they want to match Iran's capabilities and undertake a nuclear program. Such proliferation would encourage other Arab countries to follow. Some in Turkey have already begun reassessing the country's position within the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iraq, too, may one day want to reassert itself.
For a country like Iran, that does not have a direct, threatening enemy, nuclear weapons do nothing to bolster the state's security and instead would only bring more danger to itself through the resulting arms race.
Iran claims that the Non-Proliferation Treaty actually established its right to nuclear technology. But under the treaty, such a right is conditional on the state's cooperation with the IAEA. But Iran has not been cooperating with the IAEA and has been lying for the past eighteen years about its plans and technology, and continues to do so. If it is permissible that Iran to break the treaty, a negative precedent will be set for the rest of the world, and especially for those countries that have expressed desire to push forward with nuclear programs.
To reiterate, it is important that we consider the Islamic Republic, the arms race it would cause in the region, and the precedent it would set for the world by disregarding the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
There are two extreme solutions to the situation that have been suggested, attack or appease, but both are unattractive.
Even if the U.S. could locate and successfully knock out all its nuclear arms, the Iranians would react and at the minimum want to redouble their efforts. Iran has mastered all aspects of nuclear technology, and with its regime remaining in place, it would certainly rebuild. And it is implausible to try to militarily overthrow the regime because, on top of the fact that American forces are occupied elsewhere, the regime is supported by millions of ideological extremists who would certainly undertake a massive insurgency.
The other solution would be to appease Iran with a grand bargain: Iran gives up its nuclear program, and we agree to soft peddle further protests to Iran's other objectionable activities. But this too will not work. First, neither side trusts the other, especially with the Iranian government's history of cheating on agreements. Further, by striking a deal with Iran and not cracking down on their other policies, the U.S. would send a terrible message to the rest of the world. Iranians would most likely continue to support terrorist organizations and suppress its citizens' rights, demonstrating to people worldwide that the U.S. does not really care about democracy and human liberties.
The best option is the middle road: using influence, containment, and deterrence. We want to show the Iranians that if they pursue nuclear weapons, they will be worse off. One of the ways to do this is through military measures, such as stepping up military cooperation and military/naval presence in the Gulf region. We could also threaten to sell weapons to Iraqis and Iran's other neighbors. These actions would send the message to Iran that their nuclear program is isolating them and creating an arms race which they will lose.
There are positive inducements we could use as well, such as exchanging military observers with Iran to build greater confidence on both sides and forming maritime agreement to prevent incident at sea. Both measures proved successful in the Cold War.
But if Iran continues on their course, the U.S. should work with European allies to persuade the UN to use diplomatic measures. Isolating Iran economically, however, is not a good idea. The oil sanctions used against Iran did not work and are impractical, as we depend too heavily on oil. But there are other types of sanctions that we could use. If asked which sanctions had the greatest impact politically, South Africans and Serbs would concur that it was the symbolic sanction of banning participation in international sporting events.
Iranians are soccer crazy and had a day of national celebration when they qualified to play in the World Cup. If Iran were banned from participation in the World Cup, it would grab people's attention. After mentioning this idea in an article, I received a record number of death threats in one day.
There are other diplomatic isolating steps that the U.S. can use, such as banning the travel of key individuals associated with the nuclear program, the country's leaders, and their respective family members. Such measures have worked in the past. In October 2003, even though no officials expected it, Iran agreed to suspend enrichment and conversion activities. The British, French, and Germans had threatened Iran, and Iran complied because they did not want to be isolated from rest of the world.
Iranians will not give up their dreams, and if we stop showing interest in the issue, they'll certainly pick it right back up again. But if we are united in our efforts, the West can persuade them to freeze their plans.