Saturday, July 28, 2007

Facing Iran's Nuclear Challenge

Iranian nuclear proliferation is emerging as one of the top strategic challenge to the United States. What is the appropriate American response to Tehran's nuclear program? It's a difficult question, one that gets bogged down by partisan attacks on the Bush administration and the war in Iraq (can we seriously discuss regime change in Iran while this adminisration remains in power?).

I was pleased, then, to read Colin Dueck and Ray Takeyh's thoughtful
dissussion of the Iranian nuclear challenge in the current issue of Political Science Quarterly (pdf). The article is scholarly but accessible, and it's thankfully brief. Here are a couple of noteworthy points on the nature of Iran's challenge, which capture the interlocking context of Israel and the U.S. in Iranian strategic plannig:

Given the regime’s strident anti-Israeli rhetoric, it is often assumed that Tehran’s animosity toward the Jewish state drives its nuclear determinations....

The question of Israel needs to be assessed carefully, for in this case, rhetorical fulminations conceal more than they reveal. To be sure, Iran views Israel as an illegitimate state, and its continued power as a product of a pernicious conspiracy...However, during the three decades since launching its nuclear program, Iran has pre-ferred to express its disdain for Israel through proxies and has striven hard to wage its indirect war within distinct limits or ‘‘red lines.’’ Indeed, one of the characteristics of this most peculiar of conflicts is that both parties have sought to avoid direct military confrontation....

While Israel may be peripheral to Iran’s nuclear calculations, the American shadow looms large. With the backgound of the perennial tension between the two states, the George W. Bush administration’s muscular unilateralism and calls for regime change as a means of fostering stability have unsettled Iran’s reactionary rulers. For many within Iran’s corridors of power, the only way in which the long-term American challenge can be negated is through the possession of the ‘‘strategic weapon’’... Given the asymmetry of power between the two states, a presumed nuclear capability seems to be the only viable deterrent posture against an adversary that has never accepted the legitimacy of the Iranian revolution and has long sought to
isolate and contain the Islamic Republic.
This is a thought-provoking discussion. Ultimately, Iran's nuclear proliferation regime amounts to a long-range plan to balance American preponderance. Striking Israel - a not so subtle subtext to President Ahmedinejad's anti-Semitic ramblings - appears a lesser objective in Tehran's overall strategic planning.

This has crucial implications for how we conceive the nature of the Iranian threat. Iran sees opportunity in U.S. difficulties in Iraq. Tehran's state leaders see the current correlation of forces as opportune for establishing a great Shiite arch of power across the Middle East. Iranians saw the promise of this opening last summer, with the success of Iran's proxy backing of Hezbollah in the war in Lebanon against Israel.

Dueck and Takeyh nicely lay out the strategic alternatives for the U.S. vis-a-vis Iran. They are probably right to dismiss regime change as an alternative option:

An American invasion and occupation of Iran aimed at dismantling Tehran’s nuclear capabilities is simply not going to happen.
Yet, if that's the case, the alternatives laid out in the article don't look promising. On the one hand, the authors argue that the system of economic sanctions in place since are having limited effect, with Russia and China unwilling to implement truly devasting restrictions on the Iranian economy (oil).

On the other hand, the authors end up arguing that economic sanctions with teeth would be effective in combination with a much more robust strategy of diplomatic and military containment. The key assumption is that the hard-liners in Tehran would not privilege nuclear capabilities over economic stablity:

If presented by the West with a clear choice between nuclear weapons and the avoidance of economic damage caused by truly effective sanctions—or a clear choice between nuclear weapons and genuinely significant economic incentives—the more pragmatic members of Iran’s ruling class, including Supreme Leader Khamenei, could very well choose economic benefits over nuclear weapons. Indeed, the very prospect of such a stark choice might allow a faction of pragmatic hard-liners to outmaneuver the more extreme President Ahmadinejad and thus secure their own power domestically.
This seems a reasonable conclusion. Yet, the case for a comprehensive containment regime, utilizing diplomacy and economic pressure, rests on a degree of economic cooperation among other international actors (Russia and China) that Dueck and Takeyh have already dismissed as improbable.

I'd be surprised if Iran would give up its proliferation regime under a Western policy along the lines suggested by the authors. In the absence of Iranian diplomatic pragamtism - and particularly if Iran ratchets-up its bellicosity - U.S. interests might best be served with preventive airstrikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.

I've discussed this option in previous posts. After reading the Dueck and Takeyh article, I'm more persuaded that U.S. interests would be better served by military strikes that disable Iran's nuclear designs, even if this approach ends up being only a temporary solution.

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