On Monday, Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear-enrichment program. In return, England, France and Germany agreed not to support taking the matter to the United Nations Security Council, as the United States has been seeking. Will the European gamble with Tehran pay off? The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding.
Over the last year, the United States and the European trio have in effect been playing “bad cop, good cop” with the Iranian government, and this dual effort might have produced a positive result. The word “might” is used advisedly, because the negotiations have not yet been fully concluded — in particular, detailing the tangible benefits that Iran would get for its nuclear power-generating industry — and it is not clear what else Iran could be doing to develop nuclear weapons that would not be transparent to the outside world.
The Europeans, with the United States looking over their shoulders, will want to be sure that Iran does not sustain a capability for what is known in the trade as “break out” — that is, the ability to scrap agreed limitations and go full speed ahead on a weapons program according to a timetable that outstrips the ability of outsiders to respond effectively. The key to holding Tehran to account, of course, is inspections, inspections, inspections.
However difficult it might be for a proud nation to accept such restraints — and just about every country is “proud” in this way — for Iran this is likely to be the less costly option: Permit inspectors to roam around at will or risk some punishment down the road. Now that the United States has overthrown the governments in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, few Iranians of any political stripe can still be under the illusion that the United States, much less Israel, would be reluctant to use military force, if needed, to prevent a bomb from coming into being.
This is so despite the growing numbers of American commentators, including a number of serious neoconservatives, who argue that Washington does not want to take on yet another conflict. They argue that Iran is a country that has a 3,000-year history, is not just a 20th-century colonial creation like Iraq and has shown it will fight invaders, no matter what the Iranian people think of the regime in power. But Iran knows it cannot rely on those who are reluctant to make war.
So, that part of the outside world that both opposes the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons and is prepared to do something about it has won this round, laying the basis for limiting Iran's ability to produce a bomb and for pressing it back to much slower-acting clandestine activities — if indeed Tehran wants to get nuclear weapons, come what may.
But do the Iranians want to get the bomb “come what may?” Some of its leaders surely do. At one extreme — and it is increasingly the “extreme” view, not the predominant one — are fundamentalist clerics who want weapons in order to intimidate others and show the equivalence, if not superiority, of their way of life, culture, politics and religion. Others want Iran to have the bomb to secure great-power status in the Persian Gulf region, where Iran has classically played a leading role but for many years now has been outclassed. Some obviously believe that a bomb could deter others from attacking Iran, whether it be an America that would like to bring about regime change or an Israel fearful of what Iran could do to it and the region.
Regardless of these motives, however, careful analysis should indicate to Iranian leaders that, whatever the costs to the United States of acting militarily, it already seems to be a settled political question in Washington — on a bipartisan basis — that Iran cannot be permitted to get the bomb. Moreover, Western intelligence is good enough to figure out, in time, what Iran would be doing — and no nuclear program can be easily concealed, if at all.
Perhaps more important, from an Iranian perspective, a nuclear bomb can be a white elephant. Iran with the bomb would be an Iran isolated and shunned by its neighbors for the foreseeable future. Indeed, there is good precedent regarding the reverse course of action: Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi gave up his nuclear-weapons development program this year and was consequently embraced by the West despite his terrorist record; having the bomb would have bought him misery, but little else. Iran is more consequential than Libya and an Iranian bomb would produce a different equation of plusses and minuses, but the point is instructive.
Iranians may have yet another motive for getting the bomb that must be looked at far more carefully than the United States has done for the last two decades: that Tehran may genuinely fear an American attack for reasons that do not relate to any Iranian threat to others.
Proponents of this view in Tehran have a lot of evidence to cite. The Reagan administration gave Iraq significant military support in its war with Iran during the 1980s, and the Clinton administration lumped Iran together with Iraq in a “dual containment” strategy. From time to time, Washington has openly supported exile groups that have committed violence in Iran in an effort to topple the regime. Iran is one-third of President Bush's “axis of evil” — and the United States has already invaded one other member of the axis, and now surrounds Iran militarily.
Unlike the Europeans, the United States has been resolute in refusing any direct negotiations with Tehran, although it dealt directly with enemy regimes in Moscow and Beijing during the Cold War and is dealing now with Pyongyang. And despite some diplomatic feelers on both sides — a positive “trial balloon” from Tehran a year ago which was rejected outright by the Bush administration, and a recent visit to Iran by America's Librarian of Congress — those in Iran prepared to embrace good behavior and a swearing off of nuclear weapons have nothing to point to on the plus side of the column.
Both the United States and the Europeans, therefore, should seriously consider whether something more could come out of current diplomacy than just moving beyond the current nuclear standoff, something more than a tentative exploration of President Reagan's “trust but verify.” After all, the United States has given North Korea what, in traditional parlance, can be called a “non-aggression pledge.”
Something similar for Iran — “you behave and we will stop threatening to topple the regime and work toward your reentering the outside world” — might start a new ball rolling. Of course, Iran has a lot to do in addition to foreswearing the nuclear option, including an end to supporting terrorism and opposition to Israeli-Arab peacemaking, neither of which gets Iran much of anything in return.
But given the stakes for everyone in the Middle East, seeing whether this round of nuclear diplomacy can yield positive results on an even broader scale — an Iran reassured about its security and given a serious chance to earn its way back into the international community — is in America's, Europe's and Israel's basic interests.
Robert Hunter, a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation, was ambassador to NATO in the Clinton administration.
This commentary originally appeared in Forward on November 19, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.