How to Defuse Iran's Nuclear Threat

Bolster Diplomacy, Israeli Security, and the Iranian Citizenry

Iranian students pray in front of the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility.


Iranian students pray in front of the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility in support of Iran’s nuclear program on November 15, 2011.

By James Dobbins, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Alireza Nader, and Frederic Wehrey

Ambassador James Dobbins directs the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center. Dalia Dassa Kaye is a RAND senior political scientist and a faculty member at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Alireza Nader is a RAND senior international policy analyst focusing on Iranian political dynamics and foreign policy. Frederic Wehrey is a RAND senior policy analyst focusing on Persian Gulf security.

The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran has stoked tensions around the world. We argue that diplomacy and economic sanctions are better suited than military action to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, that Israeli security will be best served by military restraint combined with greater U.S.-Israeli cooperation, and that the Iranian people offer the surest hope for a future Iran that is more amenable to U.S. interests.

An Israeli or American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would make it more, not less, likely that the Iranian regime would decide to produce and deploy nuclear weapons. Such an attack would also make it more, not less, difficult to contain Iranian influence.

It is, after all, not Iranian aggression that its neighbors principally fear, but Iranian subversion. 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 Persian Gulf states, and to the more radical elements within Palestinian society — that is of most concern to these states. 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 even of Israel, whose principal vulnerability is not to Iranian military pressure but to attacks by Iranian-supported Hamas and Hezbollah.

An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would make it more, not less, likely that the Iranian regime would decide to produce and deploy nuclear weapons.

Containing this sort of influence would almost certainly become more difficult in the aftermath of an unprovoked American or Israeli military attack. Reaction among neighboring populations would be almost uniformly hostile. The sympathy thereby 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. This would be particularly true in newly democratizing societies, such as Egypt, where public opinion has become less fettered and more influential. International sanctions would erode, and Iran would likely redouble its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

At this late date, the proximate objective of Western policy must be to dissuade Iran from testing and deploying nuclear weapons. Doing so will require that Western officials go beyond declaring such a step unacceptable and rather begin to illustrate how crossing this threshold will only increase Iran’s isolation, reduce its influence, and increase the regime’s vulnerability to internally driven change. Making such warnings credible will require broad international solidarity in support of ever-tighter sanctions. Threats of military action, and even more its actual conduct, would have only 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.

To prevent the rivalry between Israel and Iran from escalating into armed conflict, the United States should continue to discourage an Israeli military strike while strengthening Israeli capabilities in preparation for a future in which Iran may have managed to acquire nuclear weapons. U.S. leaders should bolster security cooperation and intelligence sharing with Israel while maintaining pressure on Iran, thus weakening its capacity to project power and fueling the debate within Iran over nuclear weapons.

A future Iranian regime may view Israel differently. Fundamentalists appear to have consolidated power since the 2009 Iranian presidential election, but the regime exhibits severe fractures and faces critical vulnerabilities. The potential emergence of a more democratic Iran or of more moderate leadership may diminish Iran’s hostility toward Israel as well as Israel’s heightened threat perceptions of Iran. The United States should pay close attention not only to Iran’s nuclear program but also to such issues as human rights abuses, signaling to the Iranian people that the United States cares about Iran as a nation, not merely as a problem to be solved.

Diplomacy and Sanctions

Iran and the United States have substantial grounds for their mutual antipathy. Iranian grievances go back to the U.S. role in overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, followed by Washington’s backing of the shah for 26 years and then U.S. support for Saddam Hussein’s war of aggression against Iran, during which the U.S. Navy accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over international waters in the Persian Gulf in 1988. U.S. grievances date to the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the holding hostage of its staff for 444 days, followed by Iranian links to terrorist attacks on U.S. forces in Beirut in 1983 and in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and Iranian support for extremist movements in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In the past decade, Iran’s nuclear program has emerged as the dominant concern.

U.S. diplomatic leverage is constrained by the bitter history of U.S.-Iranian relations and the degree of domestic legitimacy that the Islamic Republic derives from defying the United States. The 2009 Iranian presidential election and the resulting divisions among Iranian political elites and within Iranian society have made the Islamic Republic even less susceptible to direct U.S. diplomatic influence, but also more vulnerable to U.S. economic leverage and “soft power.”

Even though the regime’s conservative and “principlist” (fundamentalist) decisionmakers, ascendant in the postelection period, are unlikely to be swayed by U.S. efforts at engagement, their repression of the Iranian people and their assertive foreign policy make it easier for the United States to rally international pressure against them. Iran’s recent support for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brutal repression of the Syrian people and opposition forces has further weakened Iran’s regional stature following the Arab uprisings.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to the Experts Assembly in Tehran.


Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, speaks to the Experts Assembly in Tehran on March 8, 2012. Khamenei welcomed comments by U.S. President Barack Obama advocating diplomacy and not war as a solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a rare positive signal in long-standing hostile exchanges between Tehran and Washington.

Current U.S. policy has been to ease sanctions only if Iran rolls back its nuclear program entirely by abandoning uranium enrichment (even if the Obama administration might allow Iran to enrich uranium up to 5-percent purity, the upper end of the range for most civilian uses). But there is no support anywhere on the Iranian political spectrum for abandoning all enrichment activity and, therefore, little prospect that this larger objective could be attained. Worst of all would be a situation in which Iran openly breached the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (also known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT) by actually building, testing, and deploying nuclear weapons. This latter situation could well prompt other regional states to go down this same path.

We therefore recommend that the United States pursue a set of graduated diplomatic objectives, seeking first to halt the Iranian nuclear program short of weaponization while retaining the leverage to secure Iran’s eventual compliance with all its NPT obligations. Iran is seeking nuclear weapons for some combination of security, influence, and prestige; thus, persuading Iran that violating the NPT will only confirm its pariah status is the best way to dissuade it from crossing that threshold. No effort at persuasion can begin, though, until the United States acknowledges that the Iranian nuclear program might not be reversed and thus commences preparations to deal with the consequences.

Diplomacy is unlikely to yield substantial breakthroughs as long as the current Iranian leadership remains in power. The United States nevertheless needs reliable channels of communication with the Iranian regime to garner information, signal warnings, avoid unintended conflict, and be positioned to move toward accord if and when an opening arises. Should Iran actually build and deploy nuclear weapons, such diplomatic channels will become all the more important.

Explicit U.S. efforts to bring about regime change, whether overt or covert, will probably have the reverse effect, helping to perpetuate the regime and strengthen its current leaders. For the immediate future, the best thing the United States can do to promote reform in Iran is to support the growth of democracy in those other Middle Eastern countries where the United States has greater access and influence. Adopting a regionwide and, indeed, globally consistent approach to democratization is important to establishing the credibility of U.S. support for reform in Iran.

Employing this type of soft power could be decisive in the long run. Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye defines soft power as what a country can obtain “through attraction rather than coercion.” It arises from a country’s “culture, political ideals, and policies.” It is more of a magnet than a mallet. The best way to employ soft power is simply to remove the barriers to exposure. For example, the United States should make Internet censorship by the Iranian regime difficult and help expose the Iranian people to the outside world by encouraging travel and study abroad programs.

Sanctions erect barriers to such exposure — an unavoidable trade-off that needs to be carefully weighed each time new sanctions are levied or old ones renewed. Even as the United States seeks to isolate and penalize the Iranian government, it should seek to expand the exposure of the Iranian people to the United States, the West, and the newly dynamic Middle East.

Israeli Security

Proponents of an Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities might believe that Israel could endure the short-term military and diplomatic fallout of such action, but the long-term consequences would likely be disastrous for Israel’s security. Those believed to favor a military option, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, argue that the Middle East with a nuclear-armed Iran would be far more dangerous than a military attack to prevent it. But their position rests on a faulty assumption that a future, post-attack Middle East would indeed be free of a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, a post-attack Middle East may result in the worst of both worlds: a nuclear-armed Iran more determined than ever to challenge the Jewish state, and with far fewer regional and international impediments to doing so.

Thus, what the region’s future may hold is not an Iran that has or has not acquired nuclear weapons, but rather a nuclear-armed Iran that has or has not been attacked by Israel. And while a nuclear-armed Iran that has not been attacked is dangerous, one that has been attacked may be much more likely to brandish its capabilities, to make sure that it is not attacked again.

Israel and Iran have not always been rivals, nor are they natural competitors. They do not have territorial disputes. They do not compete economically. They have traditionally maintained distinct regional zones of interest (the Eastern Mediterranean for Israel and the Persian Gulf for Iran). Their shared geopolitical interests led to years of cooperation before and even after Iran’s 1979 revolution. Arab governments have regarded both countries with great suspicion, while both viewed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as the greatest obstacle to their national security interests.

An Iranian goldsmith shows gold coins at the Grand Bazaar in Tehran.


An Iranian goldsmith shows gold coins at the Grand Bazaar in Tehran, Iran, on January 26, 2012. Worried about the potential impact of economic sanctions, Iranians were focused on buying U.S. dollars and Iranian gold coins instead of depositing money in banks offering interest rates far lower than the inflation rate — until Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad approved raising bank interest rates to 21 percent.

Only in the past decade have Israel and Iran come to view each other as rivals. Israeli perceptions of the Iranian threat stem, in part, from Iran’s expanding missile capabilities and nuclear advances. But just as critical is Israel’s view that Iranian regional influence is on the rise, infringing on Israeli interests and threatening stability in areas bordering Israel. Israeli leaders worry that if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon capability, its influence would only grow, severely limiting both Israeli and U.S. military and political maneuverability in the region.

The rise of Iranian principlists has increased Iranian hostility toward Israel and deepened Israeli concerns over Iran’s regional ambitions. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has spoken of “wiping” Israel off the map. But the Iranian regime today is undergoing an intense internal battle, and Ahmadinejad’s harsh rhetoric, though motivated by ideology, also serves his domestic needs to satisfy other principlists on foreign policy issues. That said, there are many in Israel who take this anti-Israel ideology seriously.

The Middle East’s geopolitical transformation over the past decade has further intensified the rivalry. When the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 eliminated a common adversary of Israel and Iran, the latter began to see itself as the Middle East’s ascendant power, a view shared by many of the former’s political and military elite. The 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel — in which Iranian tactics and arms were seen as effective against Israel — reinforced the perception of Iran as the region’s great power. The Arab uprisings since 2011 have added to Israeli concerns, although this turmoil has created even greater vulnerabilities and limitations for Iran.

The United States can help manage the Israeli-Iranian rivalry by averting a military conflict through prevention and preparation. For Israel, this means discouraging an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities while bolstering Israeli military capabilities. For Iran, this means continuing to dissuade the regime from weaponizing its nuclear program while preparing to deter a nuclear-armed Iran if such efforts fail. In addition, the United States should:

Avoid putting public pressure on Israel. U.S. public pressure on Israel will likely backfire given Israel’s sense of isolation, turning Israeli popular opinion, which is divided on the question of a military strike option, against the United States and allowing for more defiant positions among Israeli leaders.

Quietly attempt to influence internal Israeli debates about the utility of a military strike. U.S. intelligence officials should support the assessments of former and current Israeli officials who have argued against a military option. U.S.-sponsored seminars outlining U.S. concerns and risk assessments for the Israeli intelligence and military community could also help shape the internal debate.

Continue to bolster security cooperation and intelligence sharing with Israel, and make such efforts more visible to the Israeli public. Making the extensive U.S.-Israeli security cooperation more known to the Israeli public could help assuage Israelis’ fears of isolation and make them less tolerant of Israeli leaders who defy U.S. leaders. Encouraging Israeli leaders and journalists to report more to the public about security cooperation efforts could be helpful.

Increase understanding about how deterrence between Israel and Iran could evolve. War games now taking place at nongovernmental institutions in the United States and Israel explore conflict scenarios involving Israel and Iran. Such games clarify how an Israeli-Iranian deterrence relationship might evolve and what military or political steps could heighten or diminish conflict.

Encourage direct communication between Israelis and Iranians through “track-two” diplomatic dialogues. Should Iran acquire a nuclear weapon capability, both Israel and Iran will have an interest in preventing nuclear conflict. Dialogue, though not possible at official levels in the immediate future, is possible through unofficial, track-two security discussions among Israeli and Iranian security experts, sponsored by U.S. or European nongovernmental institutions.

Continue engagement and sanction policies that may affect Iran’s internal debate. Iran is not necessarily intent on weaponizing its nuclear program. It may be developing the know-how and infrastructure, but it may decide to keep its nuclear program in the virtual realm. Its decisions are based on cost-benefit calculations affected by U.S. pressures and perhaps positive inducements.

Consider scenarios in which the Iranian regime is radically transformed. The Islamic Republic faces widespread popular dissatisfaction and deepening internal cleavages. Internal developments could alter the Israeli-Iranian rivalry and U.S. policy significantly. In particular, the United States should focus not only on the Iranian nuclear program but also on such issues as human rights abuses in Iran.

Iranians walk in Tehran's old bazaar.


Iranians walk in Tehran’s old bazaar. As of October 31, 2011, the United Nations Population Fund estimated Iran’s population to be 75 million.

Iranian Citizenry

The Islamic Republic has become one of the worst human rights abusers in the Middle East. The 2009 Iranian presidential election, widely perceived in Iran as fraudulent, led to a dramatic increase in Iranian state repression. Iranians who oppose the clerical-led regime are routinely harassed and jailed, often tortured, sometimes raped, and even executed. The leaders of the opposition Green Movement, including former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi, have been placed under house arrest and isolated from their families and followers. The Iranian regime has stepped up its use of force as it faces the 2013 presidential election, which could become another occasion for public demonstrations.

Yet the Iranian regime remains vulnerable to the same domestic forces that have led to the toppling of dictatorships across the Arab world. The regime may have silenced the Green Movement’s leadership, but it has not been able to crush Iranian aspirations for a freer and more democratic form of government. Like many of their Arab neighbors, Iranians face the daily frustration and indignity bred by an increasingly repressive system. Iranian women are denied equal rights despite their educational, economic, and civic accomplishments. Iranian youth languish, bereft of the opportunities and freedoms afforded to their peers across the world. Ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities live in constant fear.

Recent revelations of massive corruption in Iran, including banking embezzlements by people closely tied to the regime, have shown that the Islamic Republic has deviated from its self-described mission of erasing the social inequality that had existed under the monarchy. Iran today is a nation of haves and have-nots. Those with close connections to the government live in luxury, while the rest of Iran’s people endure soaring inflation and rising unemployment. Disillusionment with the regime exists even throughout Iran’s political and military circles.

Conditions in Iran suggest that a “Persian Spring” is possible. But Iranians have not, so far, followed the footprints of the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Yemeni, and Syrian revolutionaries. The Green Movement today is divided and leaderless, and it faces an even more fundamental weakness: It seeks to preserve the very same Islamic Republic that oppresses it, complete with a constitution that empowers unelected and unaccountable governing bodies that prevent free and fair elections. The Green Movement’s inherent weaknesses, however, have not given way to the total suppression of the democracy movement in Iran. Iranians have increasingly engaged in acts of civil disobedience independent of the Green Movement and its leadership.

The Iranian regime remains vulnerable to the same domestic forces that have led to the toppling of dictatorships across the Arab world.

But the regime maintains support among a sizable portion of the population, many of whom view the Islamic Republic as a force of “resistance” against U.S. “imperialism” in the Middle East. The regime exploits Iranian nationalism to buttress its own legitimacy and authority. It depicts the Green Movement and other civil rights actors as “pawns” of Western powers and portrays U.S. and international opposition to the Iranian nuclear program as part of an effort to deny Iran advanced technology and its place among the world’s great nations.

Thus, U.S. opposition to the Iranian nuclear program, while necessary, has also had the effect of strengthening the regime among its core supporters. The intense U.S. focus on the nuclear program may have also convinced many Iranians that the United States is concerned solely with its security interests in the Middle East, rather than with the plight of ordinary Iranians.

Recently, the United States has begun shifting toward a balanced approach, placing a greater emphasis on Iranian human rights abuses — a shift that can counter negative Iranian public perceptions of U.S. intentions. The U.S. government has supported the establishment of a special United Nations human rights monitor for Iran. The United States has also imposed financial and travel sanctions on high-ranking Iranian security officials for their involvement in human rights abuses.

Additional steps should now be taken. The international community, including the White House and the U.S. State Department, should be more vocal in excoriating Iran’s human rights abuses. Condemning these abuses should not be confused with interfering in internal Iranian affairs. As a signatory of numerous international conventions, Iran has a legal obligation to uphold its people’s human rights. When it fails to do so, the United States and the world community have a responsibility to speak up. The Iranian government is, perhaps surprisingly, very sensitive in this area, due to its ambition to be perceived as a regional leader.

In tandem, the United States should sanction additional members of the Iranian security services, especially top-ranking and mid-ranking members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij paramilitary forces responsible for the repression and human rights violations. Such sanctions would discourage foreign governments and companies from engaging with these individuals or conducting business with them and their affiliates, demonstrating to the regime that its domestic and foreign policies have substantial concrete consequences.

These steps would help the Green Movement in two ways. First, an international focus on Iran’s human rights record would make it tougher for Tehran to persist with its abuses. Second, this focus would disabuse the regime of its perception that the United States is willing to sacrifice the human rights and pro-democracy aspirations of the Iranian people for the sake of a nuclear deal.

The Iranian people, much like the Tunisians and Egyptians, are capable of challenging their government on their own. They do not need direct material or financial aid, of an overt or covert nature. The United States and other countries might not be able, through diplomacy and sanctions, to dissuade the Islamic Republic from continuing its nuclear program, but they can demonstrate that they are on the side of Iranian democrats who could well rule Iran one day. square

Related Reading

Coping with a Nuclearizing Iran, James Dobbins, Alireza Nader, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Frederic Wehrey, RAND/MG-1154-SRF, 2011, 154 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-5865-2.

Iran’s Human Rights Abuses, Alireza Nader, RAND/CT-369, 2011, 7 pp.

Iran’s Nuclear Future: Critical U.S. Policy Choices, Lynn E. Davis, Jeffrey Martini, Alireza Nader, Dalia Dassa Kaye, James T. Quinlivan, Paul Steinberg, RAND/MG-1087-AF, 2011, 152 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-5175-2.

Israel and Iran: A Dangerous Rivalry, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Alireza Nader, Parisa Roshan, RAND/MG-1143-OSD, 2011, 116 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-5860-7.