The Obama administration has called the negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities a critical test of the Tehran regime’s intentions. The dilemma is that through its mastery of uranium enrichment, Iran has achieved a breakout option: centrifuges ostensibly intended to produce low-enriched uranium for civil use can be kept spinning to yield high-enriched uranium for bomb-making. Negotiations can narrow, but not eliminate that inherent ambiguity, since any country that crosses that key technological threshold is a “virtual” nuclear-weapons state, according to International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei.
For the Tehran regime, a hedge has political utility as a source of leverage with its regional neighbours and as a complicating factor in the strategic calculations of its adversaries. For the Obama administration, the question is how much ambiguity it is prepared to live with.
Iran’s nuclear programme is determined and incremental. But it is not a crash programme to get a weapon as quickly as possible. Iran is not under urgent pressure to weaponise. Indeed, overt development of nuclear weapons would trigger an adverse regional reaction, potentially leading to a cascade of proliferation as Saudi Arabia and others reconsider their nuclear intentions. Moreover, the end of Iran’s nuclear ambiguity would strip Russia and China of the fig leaf they have used to block meaningful punitive measures in the UN Security Council. Under these circumstances, Iran may well opt for a nuclear hedge strategy indefinitely.
In April 2003, the US-led invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein set an important precedent – coercive non-proliferation through a change of regime. Eight months later, Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi’s surprise decision to terminate his country’s weapons of mass destruction programmes pointed to an alternative model – nonproliferation through a change within a regime. Although the Bush administration claimed the breakthrough as a dividend of the Iraq war, the crux of the deal was a tacit, but clear, security assurance that the US would eschew regime change as an objective if Libya agreed to transparent WMD disarmament.
With Iran, the Bush administration was caught between the Iraq and Libya precedents. It could not replicate the Iraq model and would not offer the security assurance that was central to Mr Gaddafi’s turnaround. President George W. Bush never resolved that core contradiction: whether the US objective was to change the Iranian regime or to change its conduct.
President Barack Obama inherited a hard case with no good option. A military strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would set back, but not end, the nuclear programme. In Iran, military action would probably be viewed as the initiation of a preventative war to topple the regime – and the Iranians would retaliate accordingly against US interests. Domestically, the hardline regime, on the defensive since the fraudulent June elections, would politically benefit from the rally-round-the-flag effect of foreign military intervention.
The alternative to the military option is a strategy of containment and deterrence. The Obama administration’s resolution of the ambiguity in American policy – clarifying that the US objective is behaviour change – is the prerequisite for reducing Iran’s nuclear ambiguity. Bringing Iran back into compliance with its Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments requires transparency – most notably, with respect to suspect undeclared sites, such as the secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom recently revealed by President Obama. Increased transparency and reduced ambiguity would hopefully prevent or at least provide timely warning of an Iranian breakout.
Iran now faces a structured choice between the tangible benefits of behaviour change and the penalties for non-compliance. Creating meaningful multilateral pressure on Iran to comply will require co-operation from Russia, which must decide whether its occasionally rancorous differences with the US trump its interest in blocking the rise of another nuclear state on its periphery.
The other essential element of this containment strategy is the reassurance of America’s regional allies. Preventing those states from either acquiring independent nuclear capabilities to counter Iran or reaching some accommodation with a regionally-ascendant Tehran is contingent on Washington’s ability to provide reassurance that is both militarily and politically credible.
The ongoing nuclear crisis is playing out against the backdrop of political turmoil in Iran, with fresh opposition demonstrations taking place on Wednesday. But with regime change not an immediate prospect, the US cannot wait for a potentially long-term political process to play out there. A containment strategy would decouple the nuclear issue from the question of regime change and rely on internal forces as the agent of societal change.
The writer is vice president for programmes at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington. He formerly served as director for non-proliferation on the US National Security Council staff and is author of ‘Regime Change: US Strategy through the Prism of 9/11’