Containing Iran

Strategies for Addressing the Iranian Nuclear Challenge

by Robert Reardon

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Research Questions

  1. Can the United States prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?
  2. Can it do so at an acceptable cost?
  3. What policies are most appropriate for the United States to address Iran's nuclear efforts?

Abstract

Iran's nuclear program is one of the most pressing foreign policy issues for the United States. An Iranian nuclear arsenal could further destabilize an already unsettled region and put important U.S. interests at risk. The United States has a strong interest in preventing such an outcome. There is no evidence that Iran has decided to acquire nuclear weapons. However, Iran does seem intent on acquiring the means to do so quickly. It is an open question whether the United States and its allies would be able to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, if it so chose, at an acceptable cost. After almost a decade of concerted effort involving economic, diplomatic, and military sources of leverage, there has been little progress toward reversing or substantially slowing Iran's nuclear progress. Despite years of U.S. diplomatic efforts to stall that progress, the Iranians have succeeded in building an extensive enrichment program and likely possess the technical capacity to produce at least one nuclear weapon should they choose to do so. Coercion is unlikely to convince Iran to change course. This study assesses current U.S. policy options on the Iranian nuclear question. It suggests that U.S. goals can be met through patient and forward-looking policymaking. Specifically, the United States can begin to lay the groundwork for an effective containment policy while continuing efforts to forestall Iranian weaponization. A successful containment policy will promote long-term positive political change in Iran while avoiding counterproductive provocation.

Key Findings

Coercion is unlikely to convince Iran to change course.

  • Tehran places little value on international legitimacy or integration with the international political economy. Iran values self-sufficiency and autonomy and derives domestic legitimacy from U.S., Western, and Israeli hostility by portraying itself as the only guardian of the Islamic Republic's core principles.

It is unlikely Iran has already decided to weaponize.

  • Iran likely seeks to improve its breakout options (shortening time to make weapons, increasing the number it could produce, improving delivery vehicles). If Iran began now, it would likely take more than a year to produce a single bomb. It would be difficult to do so without providing the United States ample warning.

A successful containment policy will promote long-term positive political change in Iran while avoiding counterproductive provocation.

  • No viable U.S. policy options can eliminate the Iranian threat in the near term at acceptable cost without inviting substantial risks.
  • No viable U.S. policy options can eliminate the Iranian threat in the near term at acceptable cost without inviting substantial risks.Although air strikes are unlikely to destroy Iran's nuclear program and could paradoxically make it easier for Iran to acquire weapons, limited U.S. strikes may be necessary if Iran initiates a breakout and if the only alternative is Israeli unilateral action.
  • Economic sanctions are unlikely to influence Iranian decisionmaking in the near term but can slow Iran's nuclear progress, which could dissuade weaponizing. They also can help promote long-term positive political change in Iran.
  • The current U.S. bargaining strategy with Iran is unlikely to succeed. Continued negotiations, even absent an agreement, can promote long-term Iranian political change.

Recommendations

  • The United States should continue efforts to prevent Iran from weaponizing and emplace a containment strategy built on drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, continued weapon transfers to the Gulf Cooperation Council, economic sanctions to starve Iran's nuclear program, offers of positive inducements through negotiations, establishment of stable and clear communication lines with Tehran, development of strong intelligence capabilities, and policy coordination with regional partners — especially Israel.
  • Sanctions targeted at the nuclear program and related financial assets of Iranian entities can provide incentives for long-term political change in Tehran. Small concessions by Iran should be met with minor concessions on sanctions.
  • Negotiations should be pursued in good faith because they help build international support for other U.S. policies and can positively influence Iran's long-term decisionmaking. Iran has created a legitimizing narrative that depends on U.S. hostility and coercion. Consistent offers of rewards and negotiations help neutralize and undermine that narrative's political legitimacy.
  • Negotiations with Iran could improve if the United States supported a P5+1 position that accepted some Iranian enrichment in return for substantially more-restrictive safeguards and a more-intrusive inspections regime. Such a bargaining shift could weaken U.S. credibility but should be weighed against Iranian program expansion or weapon acquisition.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Iran's Nuclear Program: Past, Present, and Future

  • Chapter Three

    Explaining Iran's Nuclear Policy Choices

  • Chapter Four

    Constraints on U.S. Policy

  • Chapter Five

    U.S. Policy Options

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusion

The research described in this report was supported by the Stanton Foundation.

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