U.S. Should Reexamine Policy Options for Dealing with an Iran on the Nuclear Threshold

For Release

November 28, 2011

An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities by the United States or Israel would make it more, not less difficult to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, a new study from the RAND Corporation concludes.

"It is important to recognize that it is not Iranian aggression that its neighbors principally fear, but Iranian subversion," said James Dobbins, co-author of the study and a senior fellow at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

"It is Iran's ability to appeal to potentially dissident elements within neighboring societies—to the Shia populations of Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and to the more radical elements within Palestinian society—that is of most concern to these states," Dobbins said. "It is Iran's appeal throughout the Islamic Middle East as a bastion of anti-American and anti-Zionist activity that most disturbs other regional regimes."

This is true, the study notes, even of Israel, whose principal vulnerability is not to Iranian military pressure, but to attacks by Iranian-supported Hamas and Hezbollah.

Containing this sort of influence would almost certainly become more difficult in the aftermath of an unprovoked U.S. or Israeli military attack. Most neighboring regimes might quietly sympathize with such a preemptive strike, but few would openly support it. Reaction among neighboring populations would be almost uniformly hostile.

The sympathy aroused for Iran would make containment of Iranian influence much more difficult for Israel, for the United States, and for the Arab regimes currently allied with Washington, according to the study. This would be particularly true in newly democratizing societies, like Egypt, where public opinion has become less fettered and more influential.

The Iranian leadership will need to be persuaded over the next year or two that actually building, testing and deploying nuclear weapons, as North Korea has done, will only increase their isolation, reduce their influence and ultimately increase the regime's vulnerability to internally driven change. Threats of military action, and even more its actual conduct, will only have the opposite effect: reducing Iran's isolation, increasing its influence, promoting domestic solidarity, and reinforcing the case for building and deploying nuclear weapons as soon as possible.

The topic of Iranian nuclear capabilities has been widely studied by public policy research institutions. Most studies focus on either how to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, or on what to do if Iran develops nuclear weapons. The new RAND study addresses both concerns.

"It isn't inevitable that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons or even the ability to produce them, but is distinctly possible and even likely," said Alireza Nader, co-author of the study and an international policy analyst for RAND. "The United States needs to develop a multilayered and nuanced strategy for how it will interact with Iran, before, after and even during its crossing of the nuclear threshold."

The RAND study begins with an analysis of U.S. interests with respect to Iran and the policies used historically to advance them. In addition, it examines Iranian policies and those of nearby nations. The main policy instruments available to U.S. policymakers—diplomacy, economic sanctions, military and covert action and the various elements of soft power—also are examined, to offer strategic alternatives for domestic policymakers.

While containment should remain at the core of American policy toward Iran, it needs to be accompanied by at least limited engagement to guard against unintended clashes. This includes possible clashes both from deterrent measures designed to secure and reassure neighboring states and by support for democratization within those Middle Eastern societies where the United States does retain access and influence. Support for the democratization of neighboring countries is the best way of showing to the Iranian people that they, too, can aspire to such change, according to researchers.

Sanctions have had little effect on Iranian policy, but they have seriously weakened Iran's capacity to project both military and other forms of influence. They also help deter other states from following Iran down the path toward nuclear weapons.

There is no support, even among Iranian reformers, for abandonment of nuclear enrichment, but it is still possible to dissuade Iran from building, testing and deploying nuclear arms. This should be the proximate American objective, while retaining a sufficiently robust sanctions regime to lead Iran eventually, perhaps under new leadership, to come back into full conformity with its nonproliferation treaty obligations, researchers say.

The study, "Coping with a Nuclearizing Iran," can be found at www.rand.org. Other authors of the study are Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic Wehrey.

Research for the study was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division. The National Security Research Division conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security and intelligence communities and foundations and other non-governmental organizations that support defense and national security analysts.

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