Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Taking Maybe for An Answer

The hardest part of solving the nuclear crisis with Iran? Defining success.

DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images
DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images
DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images

It is easy to define failure in the world's diplomatic efforts with Iran: an Iranian bomb -- or more likely, a number of Iranian bombs -- that emboldens the Islamic Republic, threatens the Middle East, and prompts many of Iran's neighbors to develop their own weapons. In the arms race that would follow, citizens in an already unstable part of the world would live in constant terror.

It is harder, though, to define success. For many, success comes only when a very specific set of goals are reached -- the government of Iran adopts a policy of full transparency regarding its nuclear program, halts enrichment, opens all of its nuclear and ballistic missile facilities to international inspection, and reveals all the sources for its technology and materials. Failure, they argue, occurs every day until success is achieved.

Defining success narrowly and failure broadly, however, has a way of hindering progress. It sets the bar very high: Few countries have openly renounced covert nuclear programs, and it is hard to think of one that has done so under a combination of intense international pressure and what they see as longstanding existential security threats.

It is easy to define failure in the world’s diplomatic efforts with Iran: an Iranian bomb — or more likely, a number of Iranian bombs — that emboldens the Islamic Republic, threatens the Middle East, and prompts many of Iran’s neighbors to develop their own weapons. In the arms race that would follow, citizens in an already unstable part of the world would live in constant terror.

It is harder, though, to define success. For many, success comes only when a very specific set of goals are reached — the government of Iran adopts a policy of full transparency regarding its nuclear program, halts enrichment, opens all of its nuclear and ballistic missile facilities to international inspection, and reveals all the sources for its technology and materials. Failure, they argue, occurs every day until success is achieved.

Defining success narrowly and failure broadly, however, has a way of hindering progress. It sets the bar very high: Few countries have openly renounced covert nuclear programs, and it is hard to think of one that has done so under a combination of intense international pressure and what they see as longstanding existential security threats.

The maximalists have a precedent for their ambitions: Libya. After more than a decade of harsh international sanctions, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government began exploring ways to end Libya’s pariah status. In late 2003, a deal was inked that turned over Libya’s nuclear materials and provided a full description of the origins of Libya’s nuclear program — and it largely held. Qaddafi believed this would return him to the international community’s good graces and insulate him from America’s wrath.

But in applying Libya’s lessons to Iran, there are at least two problems. The first is that Libya had a single dictator rather than a diverse and bickering ruling oligarchy like exists in Iran. The second is that Qaddafi’s premise was wrong: Signing the nuclear deal did not give him security from the West. The ruling elite in Tehran must have grasped that lesson well last year when NATO warplanes hastened Qaddafi’s demise at the hands of his own people.

For some hawks, the purpose of defining success narrowly is to permit a military attack so devastating that it solves the broader set of Iranian problems once and for all. Some see the real prize of an attack — from the United States or Israel — as tempting Iran to enter an escalating battle with the United States. But even such a conflagration would do little to halt Iran’s pursuit of the bomb. Even if one assumes widespread opposition to the Iranian government, the recent history of the Middle East illustrates how quickly battles for spoils turn bloody. Should the Islamic Republic be toppled, the new government might still pursue its nuclear efforts, just as the ayatollahs pursued the efforts the shah started.

Among the worst military outcomes is a partially successful strike, which would likely sharpen rather than blunt Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions. After all, the mullahs would reason, no country with nuclear weapons ever has been attacked. Iran could rebuild the damage from a strike itself, or it could purchase technology and materiel overseas. If nuclear facilities allowed under the Non-Proliferation Treaty were attacked, Iran would likely withdraw from the agreement, further loosening constraints and shielding the nuclear program from the world’s view. Such an attack would also threaten to shatter international efforts to press for a change in Iranian behavior and unleash a range of second-order effects that would spike oil prices, drive the fragile global economy into a tailspin, and leave a trail of death from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.

Others argue that the optimal strategy is to constantly threaten a strike. The idea is to remind the Iranians that developing a nuclear capability carries risks, potentially forcing a change in their decision-making calculus. Such talk creates its own dilemmas. For one, it boosts oil prices, which blunts — if it doesn’t completely eliminate — the cost of sanctions to the Iranian government. Constantly talking of war but not delivering one also undermines the credibility of the threat itself. It is also hard to control — over time, the logic of an enduring and often-repeated threat leads to at least some conflict, with unpredictable results.

All told, there are many ways a military option could fail, and even more ways that its outcome would be impossible to judge. There is a better option. An Iranian nuclear program that has more intrusive inspections and narrower areas of uncertainty, as the International Atomic Energy Agency is reportedly seeking, puts the United States in a better position than it is in now. A precedent for this exists: Despite more than a decade of drama after the U.S.-led war on Iraq in 1991, the resulting inspections regime was enough to stymie any Iraqi nuclear ambitions. What was left was mostly smoke and mirrors and public relations, intended to bolster the regime rather than threaten its neighbors.

There is substantial international support for such an approach, ranging from governments who want to bolster multilateralism to those that fear a disruption in energy supplies. While Russia and China in particular seem reluctant to hand the United States a victory, these countries would prefer successful U.S.-led management of the crisis to chaotic conflict. One way the United States can sustain international unity is quietly to remind these states that it retains a war option, while doing everything possible to find diplomatic alternatives to it.

Such an outcome would fall in the uncomfortable middle ground between failure and success. Regional tensions would remain — and some say they would remain intolerable. Iran would be an enduring problem that needed to be managed. For those seeking a "solution" to the Iran problem, it would count as a defeat.

Yet, achieving complete success is both unlikely and unverifiable. With no agreed starting point and no clear ending point in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, and a host of contingencies in between, there seems little way to avoid at least some period of deeper uncertainty in efforts to change Iranian behavior.

Few view collective action as the most desirable course, or have much appetite for it. Over the next five to 10 years, however, being willing to accept half-victories is the key to preventing total failure in the quest to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb.

<p> Jon B. Alterman is the Zbigniew Brzezinski chair in global security and geostrategy and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the recent editor of Gulf Kaleidoscope: Reflections on the Iranian Challenge. </p>

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