At the 2014 AIPAC policy conference, US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the oft stated policy of the administration regarding Iran’s nuclear program: “Let me sum up President Obama’s policy, unequivocal: We will not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Period.” This is an important policy goal regardless of whether you believe Iran will behave in a rational way were it to attain nuclear weapons.
Leaving aside Iran’s genocidal rhetoric and support for terrorist groups, the danger that a nuclear Iran would start a nuclear arms race in the volatile and strategically important region of the Middle East makes stopping Iran’s nuclear program crucial to global peace and stability. If the Obama administration’s stated goal is to be taken as actual policy and not simply empty rhetoric, sanctions and diplomatic pressure will need to be backed up by a credible military threat. Failure to stop or even successfully monitor the progress of North Korea and Pakistan’s nuclear program demonstrates that diplomacy and sanctions will not succeed on their own. The reason for this being that Iran’s perceived benefits for pursuing nuclear armament are not outweighed by sanctions and isolation. A credible military threat is necessary to influence Iran’s cost-benefit calculus and convince Iran to peacefully end its nuclear ambitions.
The Obama administration’s rhetoric does back diplomacy with a military threat. In a US embassy dossier, Obama states, “I reserve all options, and my policy here is not going to be one of containment. My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.” Despite this tough rhetoric, many doubts remain regarding the administration’s will to carry out this policy if diplomacy fails. A military threat today is not perceived as credible due to a perception of difficulty in securing a coalition effort, and American war weariness, exemplified by the ignored “red line” in Syria. To make things worse, partisan politics is delaying the push for sanctions. This is not the way to convince Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.
The breathing room the US is giving Iran by allowing its economy to recover, unfreezing assets, and delaying the push for sanctions, will more likely allow Iran to build nuclear weapons without detection and catch us by surprise, just like what happened with North Korea and Pakistan.
This is precisely what is said in a new Pentagon report.
The fact that the same person, Wendy Sherman, who headed the failed negotiations with North Korea under Bill Clinton, which resulted in that country going nuclear without US knowledge, is in charge of these current negotiations with Iran is frightening and absurd. Sherman wrote in a 2001 New York Times article entitled “Talking to the North Koreans,” in which she stated that diplomacy was the only way to halt North Korea’s nuclear program. In a 2005 Times article entitled “Diplomacy at Work,” premature optimism was the theme of the day.
Excerpts from that article: “Diplomacy, it seems, does work after all,” and “The agreement appears to vindicate those who argued all along that North Korea wanted to end its costly diplomatic isolation and ensure the survival of its current regime, and that it was using its nuclear weapons programs as a bargaining chip. Now North Korea must follow through on its commitments. If it does, it should be accepted as a sovereign member of the international community, although no one is obliged to keep silent about its horrific human rights violations,” show a nearly indistinguishable resemblance to the rhetoric surrounding the situation today in Iran.
The Iranians are no fools. Both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi gave up their WMD programs, and both of those leaders are now dead at the hands of the Western powers which they originally where trying to appease. While those two leaders who gave up their programs are dead, North Korea’s brutal regime, and Pakistan, which harbored Osama bin-Laden for years, are both still in power, and Pakistan continues to receive billions of dollars in foreign aid, to boot. It would be naïve to assume Iran does not notice this contrast.
While the fate of Iraq and Libya juxtaposed with that of North Korea and Pakistan weigh in on Iran’s decision making, the rational pursuit of increasing military power is Iran’s strongest motivator for pursuing nuclear weapons. A rational state aims to increase its military power to guarantee its safety and interests. Going from non-nuclear to nuclear state is the quickest way to exponentially increase power. Power is relative to the other players in the region. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, the Saudis, Turks and Egyptians will no doubt claim entitlement to a nuclear program as well. For Iran, its nuclear program is rational from a strategic point of view, and also consists of an element of national pride.
It is difficult to collect reliable data concerning Iranian public opinion regarding the nuclear program. According to a report by The Washington Institute, the regime decision makers “have a long history of prohibiting and censoring debate on the nuclear program. This culture of secrecy often prevents them from sharing information, and the legislators in the Majlis (Parliament) have been consistently shut out of many important aspects of nuclear decision making,” and the “public does not play an important role.” Despite the repressive and censored nature of the Iranian nuclear program, a Center for Strategic and International Studies survey finds that Iranians “favor nuclear arms and do not want to back deals that halt enrichment.”
The evidence suggests that Iran has every reason for pursuing its nuclear program, and that the US has important strategic reasons for stopping it. For America, the best possible scenario would be a diplomatic solution ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions. To attain this, it is necessary to convince the Iranians that the costs of noncompliance outweigh the substantial perceived benefits. When the threat of military intervention is in doubt, Iran will be much more likely to resist US demands. Disbelief in a credible military threat makes reaching a diplomatic solution less likely.
It is possible that even with a credible military threat, bargaining will fail. In that case the calculus concerns outcomes.
Is the outcome of a nuclear Iran more or less costly than war if bargaining fails? Considerations must include short-term costs in manpower, resources and political costs, and long-term strategic costs including Iranian support for terror, aggressive genocidal rhetoric, and the likelihood of an arms race in the Middle East. If the Obama administration sincerely maintains that the price of a nuclear Iran is too high to pay, the last chance to avoid war would be to make an impending devastating military strike unambiguously apparent to the Iranians.
Right now the policy of delaying the request for sanctions, and the dubious credibility of a military option, do not bode well for convincing the Iranians to accept a diplomatic end to their nuclear program. In fact it projects the opposite: weakness and indecisiveness.
The author is a senior political science major at the University of Vermont and an IDF veteran.
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