The revelation of a secret nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom, and the likely existence of other advanced facilities across Iran, makes more urgent the need for a quick solution to the nuclear impasse. The Obama administration appears to be following a strategy of engagement along with increased pressure, namely strengthened international sanctions. But even if the United States can wrest sanctions from the United Nations, these measures are unlikely to bring a halt to Iran's nuclear ambitions in the near future.
The secret nuclear facility near Qom seems to confirm long-term international suspicions that Iran aims to build a nuclear bomb. Built in a Revolutionary Guards base and located beneath a mountain, the site has been described by the Iranian government as a "semi-industrial" facility meant to produce nuclear fuel. Yet its size, location, and the involvement of the Guards rule out any sort of civilian use.
The revelation of what must be a nuclear weapons facility may be a short term boon to President Obama in persuading the UN Security Council, including Russia and China, to pass further sanctions against Iran.
Those sanctions are likely to target Iran's fuel imports, which many analysts believe to be a key economic vulnerability. Although Iran is one of the largest oil producers in the world, it nevertheless relies on foreign providers, including Chinese companies, for more than 40% of its fuel supplies. Sanctions that target fuel imports would no doubt hurt Iran's already struggling economy. Starved of foreign investment and technology, the country can no longer support its growing and increasingly demanding population.
Additional sanctions may create popular resentment against the government, and may even increase protests and opposition stemming from Iran's disputed presidential election. But sanctions that make gasoline expensive or scarce will only renew anti-Western resentment on the streets of Tehran, where protestors are now chanting not "Death to the United States" but instead "Death to the Dictator." For this reason the Obama administration should apply only target sanctions that do not hurt the civilian population.
The Islamic Republic views the nuclear program as one of the main pillars of its long-term survival. Faced with a suspicious international community, a sclerotic economy, and a vigorous opposition, Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards have become dependent on the nuclear program to keep their enemies at bay.
The Guards have demonstrated that they are the real power-brokers in Iran. Ahmadinejad's re-election could not have been possible without their active support. And even Khamenei appears to have become dependent on them in order to maintain his quickly diminishing authority. To hold onto control, the small inner circle that dominates Iran has increasingly moved the country toward a military system of rule. The Guards not only dominate the nation's military and security forces, but are the key political and economic decision-makers. No Iranian diplomat can make a decision without their consent, especially regarding the nuclear program.
The Guards, lacking nation-wide legitimacy, have relied on force and repression to defeat their opponents. Nevertheless, their fighting capabilities also give them an enhanced sense of value and prestige. Faced by an overwhelmingly powerful U.S. military, and lacking Western military skills and technologies, the Guards have come to see ballistic missiles, and possibly nuclear weapons, as the ultimate source of military deterrence -- and domestic legitimacy. Hence, they will be quite reluctant to make any compromises on the nuclear program, even if their economic interests are endangered by increased sanctions. Greater external pressure and domestic opposition may only lead them to become more intransigent, and possibly to accelerate the drive toward nuclear weapons.
So what is the solution to Iran's nuclear crisis? What can be done with a country under the command of an increasingly authoritarian and militarized political system?
The short-term prognosis is dire indeed. But Iran is a sophisticated nation that is undergoing a social and political transformation before our eyes. The opposition toward the Ahmadinejad administration, and by implication to Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, contains the seeds of a potentially great renewal in Iran.
This renewal may not take the form of a violent revolution or the sudden collapse of the Islamic Republic. But it may lead to the gradual transformation of Iran and its political system. Opposition leaders such as former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi, Mehdi Karrubi and Mohammad Khatami may not be the secular, pro-Western leaders the United States hoped for. Nor will they necessarily put a complete end to Iran's nuclear programs, although they have appeared to be much more conciliatory on their dealings with the international community. But they are paving the way toward change, and have indicated that they will not rest until they have succeeded. They are supported by millions of Iranians, including many rank and file members of the Revolutionary Guards and the security forces. "Crippling sanctions" toward Iran will only hurt them and their supporters, including the Iranian people, without necessarily ending the nuclear program.
President Obama is right to continue his policy of engagement and dialogue with the Islamic Republic, even if it does not bring quick concessions from Tehran.
The Iranian opposition and their supporters will need room to breathe in order to survive. However, U.S. policymakers should not delude themselves that engagement and sanctions will produce an easy solution to the nuclear impasse. That solution won't be right around the corner, but given fortitude and patience, it may be closer than expected.
Alireza Nader is an international security associate at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.
This op-ed also appears on Globalsecurity.org.
This commentary originally appeared on RAND.org on September 30, 2009. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.