Iran's security concerns weigh heavy
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
NEW YORK - By all indications, the Barack Obama administration has kicked off a
spirited effort to deal with Iran rationally and pragmatically, in contrast to
its predecessor's "axis of evil" crusade mentality that vilified Iran, Iraq and
North Korea. President Obama appears willing to address Iran's security
concerns as part of a comprehensive negotiation covering the nuclear standoff
and regional issues.
This is one reason why United States advocates of a "grand bargain" appear to
be gaining the upper hand in the current debate on the US's Iran policy,
welcome news as far as Tehran is concerned.
A case in point is Hillary Mann Leverett, a former US official who
negotiated with Iran over Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. She told the US
research center the Council on Foreign Relations that the US needed to be
prepared to address Iran's security concerns. She said that in her opinion
previous talks with Iran were "structurally flawed" because they were tactical
and not strategic and unrelated to other topics in the stalemated relations
between the two countries.
Using former US president Richard Nixon's opening to China in the early 1970s
as a model, Leverett and a number of other US pundits have counseled a mix of
open and secret diplomacy between the US and Iran to break the glacier of
mistrust between the two sides.
The "grand bargain" approach is fitted first and foremost for the issue of
Iran's nuclear program, which many suspect is being used to develop nuclear
weapons. Crucial to this is whether or not the US and the West can deliver on
their part of the bargain.
The answer is not as clearcut as proponents of grand bargain would believe.
Leverett and her husband, Flynt, and other pundits convey the image that world
powers have the mechanisms of "security guarantees" readily at their disposal.
In terms of this, by offering Iran a guarantee of no regime change and respect
for its borders, Tehran's national security anxieties, which arguably underlie
its nuclear program, would simply be erased.
But, confined to the parameters and assumptions of the grand bargain approach
here, serious flaws appear. Iran has a whole set of national security worries
pertaining to neighboring Sunni radicalism and extremism; an arms race among
the states of the Persian Gulf; and threats of insecurity on the unstable
This is the nub of the problem with the grand bargain approach: it assumes that
Iran's worries stemming from US military power top all other worries and,
therefore, all the US and its Western allies need to do to put the Iranian
nuclear genie back in the bottle is to provide firm guarantees of the US's
benign intentions towards Iran.
The fallacy of this argument rests on two things.
First, it assumes that Iran has made a conscious decision to go all the way
towards building nuclear bombs when, in fact, there are precious few empirical
grounds to support this. The grand bargain theorists can at best point at a
"nuclear weapon capability", which is germane to any nuclear program anyway.
Second, the argument misses the point that Iran is increasingly worried about
the political and security meltdown in Pakistan, including the expansion of the
Taliban's power inside Pakistan. There is also an erosion of the authority of
Kabul due to a creeping encirclement of the capital by the anti-Iran Taliban.
This presents a disquieting picture that operates against maintaining Iran's
nuclear potential latent.
"If you look at Pakistan today, nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who sold
nuclear technology to many countries, has been released from house arrest and
could easily go back to the old business after receiving a slap on the wrist.
That is very worrying for Iran," a Tehran University political science
professor told the author.
When asked what signal the Pakistani government was sending by releasing Khan,
he answered that in his opinion this was a signal both to India and the US to
pay more attention to Pakistan's needs, or else have fears of "loose nukes".
The Tehran professor added, "Another Mumbai [terror attack] and the whole
region will be in flames, we are that close to a potential nuclear Armageddon."
Maybe not, but sitting in Tehran and watching nervously the developments in
Afghanistan and Pakistan, they may be forgiven for harboring "the worst-case
scenarios" warranting the nation's utmost military readiness to deal with any
On top of the list is Pakistan, which has locked horns with India not only over
Kashmir but also over Afghanistan, where Islamabad sees an opportunity, via the
Taliban, to cut off New Delhi's tentacles wrapped around President Hamid
Karzai. Pakistan could thus re-assert its regional clout, no matter what the
olive branch from Washington.
A re-asserted nuclear Pakistan backed by Saudi Arabia and relying on regional
proxies is, without doubt, a worrying prospect for Iran, irrespective of the
close ties between the two countries. Both Iran and Pakistan are members of the
Economic Cooperation Organization and have been talking for years about setting
up a gas pipeline together with India, although Delhi's participation is in
To date, either officially or unofficially, no one in Iran has directly or
indirectly suggested that Iran's national security needs dictate a nuclear
deterrence capability with regard to Pakistan, the argument being that the
action-reaction logic of Pakistani proliferation has been indefinitely locked
on the horizon of conflict with India.
That argument holds less and less water today, given the growing instabilities
and shifting priorities of the Pakistani government, raising serious questions
about its intentions in the region.
As a result, Iran can no longer afford to take for granted the benign nature of
the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and the future absence of any attempt by
Islamabad, or factions within it, to apply some heat on Iran. This could be
done by power projections that could be proxy in nature and even connected to
the evolution of Pakistan's relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
(The council comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the
United Arab Emirates.)
Indeed, the entire region is in the darkness of political flux and mired in
uncertainty. As a result, the rational Iranian reaction, aimed at reducing
security related uncertainties, would be in the direction of fueling its
proliferation tendency - this was already fueled by the post September 11,
2001, military incursions in Iran's vicinity.
What to do then? One optimistic scenario would be Iran's inclusion in the
Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and SCO's forceful application of
"collective security" guarantees for Iran. Iran would no longer need to harbor
any fears of nuclear adversaries in the region and beyond. (SCO comprises
China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.) But this is
more than the SCO can deliver right now and may only be a viable option in the
intermediate and long-term future; certainly not in the short run.
Another option would be Iran's inclusion in the GCC. But this is highly
unlikely given the wealth of issues between Iran and the GCC states, including
military asymmetry, such as the GCC states' acquisition of state-of-art jet
fighters. This has forced Iran to rely on missile counter-efforts.
A third option would be to set up a North Atlantic Treaty Organization-Iran
council modelled after the NATO-Russia council. This would represent a
qualitative improvement in relations between Iran and the West. This is within
the realm of possibilities and could be seriously considered by Tehran and
NATO, even though it is unclear what this would achieve in terms of Iran's
worries over the Indian subcontinent.
In sum, there is no easy solution or quick fix to the endemic security worries
confronting Iran today. And in terms of the US-Iran dialogue in the coming
months or years, it is instructive to know that the Western-centric
understanding of Iran's national security needs and interests, and the policy
recommendations garnered from them, are basically flawed.
In Afghanistan in particular, where Iran has vested a great deal of energy in
the government of Karzai, another "grand bargain", that is, a Faustian deal
between the US and its coalition partners and the dreaded Taliban, may be in
the works and it could be too late to save the government in Kabul.
In turn, this has spurred Iran into thinking that it must reach out to all the
actors and "think the unthinkable" of striking its own Faustian bargain with
the Saudis and the Pakistani-backed Sunni fundamentalists who are the Taliban.
After all, a future Pakistani puppet regime in Kabul could conceivably approach
the likes of Khan and enter the quest for "loose nukes".
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.