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    Middle East
     Mar 18, 2006
America's options for Iran
By Scott Bohlinger

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

As the nuclear standoff between the US and Iran escalates, American leaders would do well to look at the range of options that exist for them. The options consist of sanctions, military strikes, and a change in policy. Sanctions and military strikes

would be counterproductive, but US support for an Iranian civilian nuclear capability could produce positive results for both the United States and Iran.

Sanctions have proved ineffective time and again and are not likely to obtain a different outcome in the case of Iran. Faced with shortages and economic privations, the Iranian populace will blame the West and cluster more closely around the current regime.

Sanctions are also unlikely because they would cut off Iranian oil. China would never tolerate this because of its dependency on Iranian oil, and the US economy could not bear the increase in the cost of oil. Iraq also taught us that sanctions could also serve as a fertile breeding ground for corruption and allow the government further leverage in exercising its power. Also, the US cannot leverage Iranian access to America's vast economy because it has already been closed to Iran for 27 years.

Military strikes would be a godsend for the regime in Iran, especially the hardliners that the United States most fears. Targeted strikes on several key installations might indeed disrupt the nuclear program, but again these would generate immense consequences for the US and its allies. Military strikes would create ill-will from ordinary Iranians and extend indefinitely the lifetime of the regime. Such strikes also would not be enough to topple the regime and no government now has the manpower or will for such an occupation.

To the degree that military strikes would be successful and would manage to destabilize the regime, US foreign policy would be faced with a vortex of anarchy stretching from Islamabad to Damascus. The internal chaos in Iran in the early 1980s showed how deep and virulent Iran's ideological divisions can be. All of these divisions could be strengthened or influenced by elements outside of Iran were the regime to collapse. This, coupled with the potential for ethnic unrest from the almost 50% of Iran that is not Persian, could lead the country into a long civil war. Furthermore, even if a stable regime were to emerge, there is no guarantee that it would be a more responsible international citizen.

Iran has far more power to cause harm and pain to the US and its allies than they can inflict on it. Iran has the ability to destabilize Afghanistan and Iraq decisively before it even nudges the valve on its huge energy supplies. US officials have acknowledged a heavy degree of Iranian infiltration in Iraq and independent analysts tend to think it is even greater than that. The Iranian presence in Iraq is not nefarious, but it is a major fact on the ground that the US and its allies cannot ignore.

The United States does not want a nuclear Iran, but it cannot bear failed states in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons, further destabilization would be a far more dangerous outcome. A nuclear weapon in Iran would be in the hands of a regime that is not losing its grip. Unlike the case of Pakistan, where the highest officials used proliferation to line their pockets, Iran has every interest in and ability to keep its technology under wraps and not let it slip into the hands of non-state actors.

Iran's underlying issues and need for unlimited access to its own fuel cycle are less psychological than the outcome of a rational cost-benefit analysis. It would be easy to ridicule Iran's vast reserve of conspiracy theories, if so many hadn't come true. Thanks to a combination of natural wealth and strategic location, Iran has been riven by international intrigue in a way that few other places have been.

The worst episode concerned the British- and US-backed toppling of the democratically elected nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953. After the shah's reinstatement, capitulations were granted to foreign personnel - a practice long abolished with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Taken together, such policies have done wonders to promote a deep-seated and well-founded suspicion of policies that seek to limit Iran's strategic range. On the day the US Embassy was overrun in 1979, its ambassador was to be found in the office of the foreign minister of the provisional government; the purpose of that visit was to discuss a reinstatement of capitulations and special privileges for US personnel.

Despite the state of relations, the US generously allows Iranian diplomatic personnel in its country. Simultaneously, however, Iran understandably cannot risk having American diplomats on its soil. Added to this is the traumatic legacy of the Iran-Iraq War, with its hundreds of thousands dead and sense of victimization and isolation at the hands of the international community.

Iran's bottom line is complete control over the fuel-production cycle. The hope of much of the international community that Iran halt all nuclear activity is not producing any movement toward that outcome, nor is the Russian proposal to enrich uranium on its soil. The option is for the US to remain quiet and take as little action as possible.

Yet if US policymakers feel compelled to speak out, there is one counter-intuitive approach that could prove effective. This approach would involve far more than saying, "We understand your security concerns," it would entail actually understanding them and then taking measures in that direction, unilaterally, and without regard for Iran's reactions or the possibility of rapprochement with its government.

There are few ways for the US to get ahead without an outcome that mutually benefits Iran. A win-win strategy would be to be wholeheartedly to support Iran's access to the fuel cycle and the development its own civilian nuclear program under the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection regime. From a cynical point of view, this would call Iran's supposed bluff - that it only wants nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. After being given the same level of trust and responsibilities as any other state, denying access to the inspectors or playing games would ring hollow.

Such a move would show Iranians that the US is not their enemy. This idea is not without illusions. With a civilian nuclear program, Iran would be in a position to drop out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and weaponize in very short order. The US, however, has a unique ability to stop the process from ever reaching weaponization by taking away many of the concerns that drive that desire. Without the US threatening violence and regime change, Iran will lose the major threat to its existence.

For weaponization finally to occur, there are some hurdles that Iran must overcome. These two hurdles are the nature of support for the nuclear program and the religious establishment's views on the legality of such a program.

It is well known that the vast majority of Iranians favor their country having a domestic nuclear capability. What is far less certain is how many people really support nuclear weaponization. In all likelihood, the number is a small minority (though it could easily gain popular support if the US threatens military action, engages in covert activities, or plays ball with terrorist organizations such as the Mojahedin-e Khalq). The Iranian public is relatively intelligent, well informed, and very cognizant of the dangers of proliferation. The US could do a lot to support this attitude by openly encouraging Iran along the peaceful path and in doing so tacitly acknowledging that a world that is safe for Iran is also safe for the United States.

Policymakers and analysts frequently underestimate the degree of debate within Iran's conservative circles. Even if this debate is not proceeding under optimal conditions of transparency, accountability, and rule of law, it is still far-ranging. One factor in this debate is clerical rulings against nuclear weapons. One such ruling comes from none other than Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself. The strongest proponents of nuclear weaponization in Iran are not the highest-ranking members of the Shi'ite clergy. There is no reason to believe that the religious establishment would roll over and change tact just because its nominal allies say so.

The party line of Iran's regime is that it is only seeking energy for civilian nuclear purposes. Yet behind the scenes there is a detente that is delaying a potential political confrontation until a later date. Supporting a civilian nuclear program would highlight differences within segments of the ruling elite, some of whom would have to find new and clever ways to admit that Iran wants more than just nuclear energy. More open differences would then proffer more opportunities for political change within Iran.

By supporting Iran's domestic nuclear capability, the US could overcome fears held by even the most pro-Western Iranians that the United States is against their power and prestige. Such a change in policy would also separate the majority of the population, who still see the US as a land of good governance and opportunities, from the minority who view the US as an aggressor. Doing so would call the bluff of this minority who want nuclear weapons, by forcing them to adhere to their stated purpose of civilian capabilities.

This would be a radical shift in foreign policy, but it is the only available strategy that could prevail for the US. The other option is for US officials to sit back, take a deep breath, relax, and then do nothing. Either way, a beneficial outcome for US and Iranian interests is possible. The alternatives - belligerent statements, sanctions, and military strikes - all range their outcomes from unproductive to unthinkable.

Scott Bohlinger is a Washington, DC-based analyst specializing in the Middle East, most specifically Iran. He also currently works at Jane's Intelligence Group.

(Copyright 2006 Scott Bohlinger.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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