Talk It Out on Iran Before It's Too Late


Aug 27, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on August 27, 2004.

Engagement Now Could Defuse a Nuclear Crisis

The Bush administration is considering what to do about Iran's possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. One alternative includes military action, whether directed against Iranian nuclear facilities or more broadly. This may not come to pass. But because the possibility of military conflict with Iran is on the table, it is vital to have the kind of public debate — now — that we did not have before the Iraq war.

Iran must not be permitted to get nuclear weapons. Even if Tehran did not threaten to use them against its neighbors or give aid to terrorists, Iran's becoming a "nuclear power," however fledgling, would radically alter regional politics and relationships in the Middle East and significantly complicate the problems facing the U.S. and others.

But what are the costs and benefits of military action? Analysis should start with the back end: Although in a full-scale war Iranian forces might be defeated as easily as Iraq's were, that outcome is not certain. Iran has shown it would pay a heavy price to preserve its national integrity, as when it accepted 1 million casualties to stop Iraqi aggression in the 1980s. Iran is not an artificial creation like Iraq, but a millenniums-old civilization. Trying to pacify a militarily defeated Iran would be far more daunting than what the U.S. and its coalition partners are facing in Iraq.

Even a "surgical strike," perhaps directed against Iranian nuclear facilities, would not be cost-free. For instance, the U.S. and Iran have shared some strategic objectives, as in the 1991 and current Iraq wars; and Iran backed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to depose the Taliban. That strategic parallelism would end.

But any military attack on Iran — however justified — would also condemn the U.S. to police the region for decades. Any chance of one day being able to work with Iran as part of a regionwide strategy would become impossible. In addition, a young generation of Iranians is renewing traditional pro-U.S. attitudes. That would be squelched in an instant.

These "cost-benefit" arguments largely explain why the European allies have been working to find alternatives to military force. Such alternatives need to be part of the U.S. strategic calculus to a greater degree than has been apparent.

But how else can Iran be stopped? This question points to an inadequacy in analysis. The U.S. focuses almost exclusively on measures to prevent Iran's acquiring weapons of mass destruction and pays little attention to why Tehran would pursue that course. At least in part, it could lie in Tehran's sense of acute vulnerability. Thus, we need to focus on that as well as working to affect the Iranians' cost-benefit analysis. This means convincing them that they have something vital to gain from foreswearing the nuclear option — a "something" that goes far beyond the economics of civilian nuclear power.

Most important, Iran needs to understand that it would not be attacked if it gave up the bomb, that regime change is not a U.S. precondition for a changed relationship and that Iran's rejoining the international community — economically and politically — is possible if it takes a series of clear, precise and reasonable steps, especially an end to support for terrorism.

From Iran's point of view, it has no assurance on any of these points. Even North Korea has been given a U.S. guarantee of "non-attack" — even though (or perhaps because) it has indicated it already has the bomb.

The U.S. has Iran surrounded, politically and to a major degree militarily. Its chances of seriously disrupting its neighbors are highly constrained as the appeal of the Iranian Revolution has long since dissipated. And for more than a decade, Iran has found that every time it has cooperated with the United States the "bar" has been raised higher. Even now, the carrot offered to Iran regarding its nuclear programs, through European intermediation, is not a non-attack commitment or economic reintegration in the outside world. Instead, it is limited to help with its civilian nuclear programs and some relief from economic sanctions.

What happened with the Libyan nuclear weapons program is instructive. It had no strategic or political value; indeed, for Libya to have gotten nuclear weapons would only have made it even more of a pariah nation. Thus Moammar Kadafi made the very best use of Libya's potential nuclear capability, by trading it away at just the right moment. In exchange for renouncing a weapons program of dubious value, he was welcomed back into the community of nations.

Of course, there is no assurance that such a trade would work with Iran. There may be no option but the use of force. But before we find ourselves irrevocably on such a track, there is a strong case for trying the engagement alternative first, and in a serious way.

At the least, Americans must have the debate about Iran that we did not have about Iraq. It needs to center on choices about long-term strategy toward the Middle East. If we do not have this discussion, then we can expect to have yet another mournful postmortem later on.

Robert E. Hunter, a senior advisor at the Rand Corp., was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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