Stephen M. Walt

A realistic approach to Iran’s nuclear program

Dan Drezner is skeptical about trying to convince Iran to forego its nuclear program, and asks us realists: “Why on God’s green earth would Iran ever accede to an agreement whereby it gives up any autonomy in its nuclear program?” I’ll take the bait. To begin with, at this point I don’t think it is ...

NATANZ, IRAN - APRIL 9: Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a ceremony at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, on April 9, 2007, 180 miles south of Tehran, Iran. Ahmadinejad announced yesterday, April 9, that Iran has stepped up their Uranium enrichment programme, with up to 3,000 isotope separating centrifuges now in operation. The news has brought condemnation from the International Community and the UN. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani confirmed the scaling-up of activity but declined to elaborate on the subject. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Dan Drezner is skeptical about trying to convince Iran to forego its nuclear program, and asks us realists: “Why on God’s green earth would Iran ever accede to an agreement whereby it gives up any autonomy in its nuclear program?”

I’ll take the bait.

To begin with, at this point I don’t think it is possible to persuade Iran to give up full control of the nuclear fuel cycle. They’ve committed a lot of money and prestige to acquiring this capacity, the program is popular domestically, and it is legal within the confines of the NPT. So if our bottom line is for them to abandon enrichment, etc., we’re almost certainly going to fail.

Our goal, instead, should be to convince Iran that it is better off not developing nuclear weapons, because that’s the issue we really care about. This means not enriching uranium to weapons grade, not reprocessing spent reactor fuel to extract bomb-making material, and not building or testing an actual device. Obviously, Iran would have to agree to sufficiently thorough inspections to ensure compliance.   

I don’t know if it’s possible to achieve this goal, but here’s how I’d try.

First and foremost, the United States has to take the threat of military force and regime change off the table. Why? Because that’s the main reason why Iran might like a nuclear deterrent in the first place. From Tehran’s perspective, they have three nuclear powers in their neighborhood (Pakistan, India, and Israel), and U.S. troops on two sides (in Iraq and Afghanistan). U.S. naval forces patrol the Iranian Sea and Persian Gulf, and it is the stated policy of the U.S. government — the world’s strongest military power — to seek the removal of the current Iranian regime. Indeed, we are reportedly engaged in various covert operations there already. Iranians can see that Saddam Hussein is dead and buried but Kim Jong Il is not, and they know one of the reasons why. They also know that Muammar al-Qaddafi agreed to give up his own WMD programs only after the Bush administration agreed not to try to overthrow him. Under these circumstances, it would be surprising if Iran wasn’t interested in its own deterrent.

This means that the Obama administration’s likely approach (“bigger carrots and bigger sticks,” as outlined by special envoy Dennis Ross) is wrong-headed. We may need to think up different inducements, but bigger sticks (e.g., stronger sanctions) sends the wrong message, and repeated statements that military force is still “on the table” only gives Tehran additional incentive to master the full fuel cycle and then proceed to weaponize. If we are serious about diplomacy (and not simply looking for a pretext to use force later), Step 1 has to be reducing Iran’s perceived need for a deterrent capability of its own. And as a number of Iran experts have already argued, the best way to do that is to pursue a comprehensive settlement of the key security issues that presently divide us.

Second, we need to explain to Iran that possessing a known nuclear weapons capability is not without its own costs and risks. Today, if a terrorist group somehow obtained a nuclear weapon and then used it, we would not suspect Iran of having provided it and they would face little risk of retaliation. Why not? Because we know they don’t have any weapons right now. But imagine how we might react a decade hence, if we knew that Iran had built a few nuclear weapons and some terrorist group whose agenda was somewhat similar to Iran’s managed to explode a bomb somewhere in the world, or even on American soil? Under those terrible circumstances, Tehran would have to worry a lot about U.S. retaliation, even if it had nothing whatsoever to do with the attack. Nuclear forensics is hardly perfect (or so my physicist colleagues tell me) and the United States has been known to shoot first and ask questions later in the past. (I’d remind Iranian officials that former Deputy Sec/Def Paul Wolfowitz recommended attacking Iraq less than a week after 9/11, and we eventually did invade that country, even though it had no WMD and had nothing to do with al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon). So Iran should not be confident that we’d act with precision and restraint in the aftermath of a nuclear terrorist attack, and that concern ought to give them pause about whether joining the nuclear weapons club is a net plus.

I’d also point out to them that acquiring nuclear weapons will encourage other states in the Middle East to follow suit. Given that Iran has a lot more latent power potential than its neighbors in the Gulf, it should prefer to confine the competition there to the conventional realm, where its larger population and considerable economic potential will inevitably give it considerable influence.  

Thus, from a purely realist perspective, Iran might actually be better off with the “Japan option”: possessing the latent capability to build nuclear weapons if circumstances required, but avoiding the costs and risks by refraining from exercising that option. If we want to convince Tehran to forego nuclear weapons, therefore, our diplomatic efforts ought to focus on explaining this situation to our Iranian counterparts, instead of merely brandishing bigger sticks or waving bigger carrots.

It is impossible to know if this strategy would work, but it is worth remembering that as far as we know, Iran has no nuclear weapons program today. Iran has signaled on several occasions since 9/11 that it was interested in a negotiated settlement with the United States. There have also been several other moments when the two states managed to cooperate in more limited ways. And if diplomacy doesn’t succeed, the United States and its allies in the region can always fall back on deterrence. By saying that the United States should “non-violently” prepare for an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, I take it that Drezner recognizes that preventive war won’t solve this problem and could easily make a lot of other problems worse. We’ve deterred bigger and tougher adversaries in the past, and while I’d strongly prefer that Iran decide not to become a nuclear weapons state, I’m not going to panic if it does cross that line at some point down the road. And neither should anyone else.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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