Cold War techniques with a ME flavor

We need to employ those methods we used for containing the Soviet Union to handle this newer, serious yet smaller threat called a nuclear-armed Iran.

April 26, 2010 09:41
4 minute read.
green movement teheran

green movement teheran311. (photo credit: AP)


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For those of us who closely followed the Iranian revolution in 1978 and 1979 – which I did as a young officer in the CIA – the green movement this past summer in Iran always seemed a pale imitation. That is not to be critical of the enthusiasm of the demonstrators in the streets and their commitment to the cause of a better Iran. They have been stalwart in their fight. But in 1978 and 1979, virtually the entire nation was in revolt against the Shah. The revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was one of the most charismatic and determined leaders of the twentieth century. Khomeini was never intimidated or irresolute.

Now the green movement seems stalled. The prospect of a quick and easy change of regime in Teheran seems remote. The nation is divided, but only one side has arms and it is likely to stay in power. This has enormous significance for American and Israeli policy toward the dangerous regime that has survived the greens’ challenge so far.

President Barack Obama wisely tried to engage the regime; that effort has failed to attract Iran to talk seriously. Now we are looking at sanctions. Few expect those to change the regime in the foreseeable future or to persuade it to give up its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. For years, the United States has kept the option of a possible military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities “on the table”. As an option however, it should not become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need instead to develop a long-range strategy for dealing with a nuclear Iran and not box ourselves into war.

Retaining the threat of a military strike is seen as increasing American bargaining leverage. Not only does it supposedly intimidate Iran, but it may help Washington persuade other countries to tighten and enforce official sanctions. The United States can argue that sanctions are preferable to military force, but that sanctions will only work if all cooperate.

THE STRIKE option, however, lacks credibility. America is already engaged in two massive and unpopular military campaigns in the region, with almost a quarter of a million troops deployed. Given Iran’s ability to retaliate for a strike against it by making the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan much worse for us, it is simply not credible that we would use force in the foreseeable future. A third war in the Middle East between America and Iran, with a spillover into Lebanon and maybe Gaza, would be a disaster for US interests.

And the technical reality remains: neither Israel nor the US can slow Iran very long from its pursuit of a bomb even with a massive strike. We do not know where all existing Iranian uranium enrichment facilities might be located – as the revelation of yet another previously unknown site near Qom last year reminded us. Even if we do strike most or all existing facilities, Iran can rebuild fairly fast, and will surely kick out inspectors and also burrow even further underground when building its next batch of facilities. We will be even harder pressed to find, and strike, those assets.

If there were any real chance of major political reform within Iran within a couple of years, buying that much time might be worth the cost. But given the regime’s control of the military, the unrest in Iran since last year’s stolen election is not likely to bring about regime change. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has observed, Iran is becoming a military dictatorship of the Revolutionary Guards. A military strike by an outside power would be unlikely to help the cause of Iranian reformists, especially if it does not have international legitimacy. And the United Nations is not going to sanction a strike under almost any conceivable scenario. Moreover, a strike on Iran in those circumstances could lead to generations of Iranian enmity to America.

There are dangers to an open-ended threat of force approach. Saying we will not tolerate a nuclear Iran and will use force to prevent it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and box in decisions.

THERE IS a better way: sanctions, deterrence and containment. Another nuclear armed state in the region, especially one touting the extremist views of the current Iranian regime, will be very bad for regional security. But it would hardly embolden Iran to take suicidal actions like attacking an American ally in the region, especially one like Israel that has a formidable nuclear arsenal of its own.

Moreover, Iran has already proven its willingness to wage proxy and terror wars against the United States and Israel prior to having nuclear arms; it is doubtful a small nuclear arsenal would offer it many more options than it has already employed.

Washington should now structure a sanctions regime designed to evolve into containment of an Iranian regime with a nuclear arsenal. High technology goods and weapons transfers should be the focus of this policy. We should also declare our intent to provide a nuclear umbrella over Israel and other threatened states. In other words, we would use Cold War techniques of containing the Soviet Union to handle this newer, serious yet smaller threat.

In time, like Moscow, Teheran’s internal dynamics will change in our favor.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in the Brookings Institution. He advised Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama on the Middle East and South Asia in the National Security Council of the White House. He is the author of The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future. This article was first published on www.bitterlemons- and is reprinted with permission.

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