Smother ‘Em With Love

Why it’s time for the United States to cuddle up with Iran.


"Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer," said Sun Tzu -- or maybe it was Petrarch, or Machiavelli, or Michael Corleone. Whatever: As U.S. negotiators resume talks with Iran in Geneva this week, we would do well to embrace this philosophy.

"Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer," said Sun Tzu — or maybe it was Petrarch, or Machiavelli, or Michael Corleone. Whatever: As U.S. negotiators resume talks with Iran in Geneva this week, we would do well to embrace this philosophy.

For more than three decades, the United States has done everything possible to marginalize, contain, and generally mess with Iran, yet Iran’s nuclear capabilities have only advanced — and its ability to throw up roadblocks against U.S. aspirations in the Middle East has continued unabated. It’s time to accept that further efforts to marginalize and contain Iran are unlikely to improve the situation. At this point, we don’t need fewer military, economic, and cultural ties to Iran — we need more. It’s time to bring Iran closer.

Consider some realities.

First Reality: Iran already has nuclear weapons capabilities. As Harvard’s Graham Allison put it in an August article, "Iran has overcome the most significant obstacle to making a bomb: it has mastered the technologies to enrich uranium indigenously. It has operated production lines to produce a stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) that, after further enrichment, would provide the cores for more than six nuclear bombs. Since 2010 it has been enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent (medium enriched uranium or MEU). As a technical fact, that means it has done 90 percent of the work required to produce the highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for an explodable nuclear bomb."

Implication: If Iran is absolutely determined to build a nuclear weapon, it already has the ability to do so. The only real question is how long the process would take: Some experts believe it would be a matter of weeks, while others think it might be closer to a year. Opinions also vary as to the likelihood that such a bomb-making operation would be detected by the United States prior to successful completion.

This isn’t good news — there’s nothing "good" about further nuclear weapons proliferation. But it’s not the end of the world, either.

The cold logic of nuclear deterrence still operates, and Iran’s leaders show every sign of being rational actors: The country has powerful regional enemies, which gives it a similarly powerful incentive to develop indigenous nuclear weapons capabilities. At the same time, Iran’s leaders know it would be extraordinarily risky to cross that final bridge and create a nuclear bomb (Israel has an itchy trigger finger). Still more important, they know that to use a nuclear weapon would be to court national obliteration. Finally, they have zero incentive to supply nuclear technologies to terrorists: As Stephen Walt asks, "Why would any country devote millions of dollars and decades of effort to get a few bombs, and then blithely give them away to people over whom they had little control?"

Second Reality: At this point, piling on more sanctions is likely to damage U.S. objectives. Clearly, years of sanctions have not prevented Iran from advancing its nuclear program: On the contrary, Iran has crossed red line after red line over the last two decades.

Recent, more aggressive U.S. and international sanctions have undeniably weakened Iran’s economy, but here, too, the impact of sanctions has been mixed at best. On the one hand, the economic woes brought about by tougher sanctions undeniably have played a role in bringing Iran back to the bargaining table. On the other hand, as Joy Gordon noted in an Oct. 18 Foreign Policy article, some analysts think that by "limiting Iran’s ability to buy and produce oil, gasoline, and natural gas," sanctions may have convinced Iran’s leaders that it’s now "much more imperative to develop nuclear energy to meet the needs of the population."

Sanctions — "smart" or not — also hurt ordinary Iranians far more than they hurt regime leaders. That’s a humanitarian problem, but it also has implications for U.S. security. Data from a Gallup poll released in early November suggests that sanctions have increased anti-U.S. sentiment in Iran: While 85 percent of Iranians now say that sanctions have affected their own economic well-being, 47 percent blame the United States, and only 13 percent blame the Iranian government. (Interestingly, only 9 percent say they blame Israel.)

Worse, sanctions seem to have led to greater popular support for Iran’s nuclear program: 68 percent of Iranians — an uptick from the last Gallup poll — now support continuing the program despite the painful impact of economic sanctions. Even Iranian Jews recently rallied in support of Iran’s nuclear program. Unsurprisingly, many Iranians view their nation’s nuclear program through the lens of national pride: Why should a small number of states get to close the nuclear club? If the world can accept that Israel, Pakistan, and India have nuclear weapons, why not Iran?

At this point, tightening sanctions still further would be either ineffective or dangerous, particularly while negotiations are ongoing. It could have the unintended consequence of shoring up hard-line anti-U.S. actors inside Iran, which could drive Iran away from the negotiating table. This, in turn, could increase, rather than decrease, the prospects for catastrophic military confrontation between Iran and Western powers.

Third Reality: A military confrontation with Iran would be similarly ineffective and dangerous. Iran knows it, the U.S. military knows it, the White House knows it, Israeli intelligence knows it. The only ones who seem not to know it are Benjamin Netanyahu and certain congressional Republicans.

Iran’s nuclear facilities aren’t soft targets: The Fordow enrichment facility is under a mountain. Most analysts believe that U.S. or Israeli strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would delay Iranian weapons production capabilities for a few years, but not destroy it, and such strikes could easily harden Iran’s determination to build nuclear bombs. As a nonpartisan Wilson Center report — produced by former top U.S. diplomats and military officials — concluded in 2012, it’s likely that "a U.S. attack on Iran would increase Iran’s motivation to build a bomb, because 1) the Iranian leadership would become more convinced than ever that regime change is the goal of U.S. policy, and 2) building a bomb would be seen as a way to inhibit future attacks and redress the humiliation of being attacked." 

All this might also increase the temptation for the United States or Israel to escalate any initially limited military action, going after a broader range of Iranian military targets as well as nuclear facilities — or even seeking regime change. But that’s not a smart path to take either. Military action is expensive and unpredictable, and strikes against Iran could trigger anything from direct Iranian retaliation to a dramatic increase in anti-U.S. or anti-Israel terror attacks and spreading regional conflict. As Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it late in 2012, "The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world."  (Or as former CENTCOM commander General Anthony Zinni memorably quipped, "I tell my friends, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll love Iran.")

To sum up: Iran already has the ability to create nuclear weapons, additional sanctions won’t help, and military action against Iran would be foolhardy in the extreme.

What’s left to do?

Smother ‘em with love.

I’m not kidding. Iran seems — finally — genuinely interested in seeking ways out of the current impasse. Maybe that’s due to the bite of recent sanctions, maybe it’s due to Iranian fears of a military strike, or maybe the Iranians are just plain tired of being international pariahs. But right now, Iran is looking for face-saving ways to reach a deal.

Let’s help them. We should seek to enmesh Iran so tightly in economic and cultural partnerships with the United States and international community that future hostilities become unthinkable.

In exchange for Iranian concessions on uranium enrichment, we should offer not only an end to sanctions, but a roadmap toward full normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations. This can’t happen overnight-and as with the removal of sanctions, steps toward normalization can be reevaluated if Iran reneges on its promises. But steps toward normalization should start soon, with small-scale, mutually respectful confidence-building measures that go beyond those directly linked to Iran’s nuclear program.

These might include joint U.S.-Iranian efforts to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria, for instance — or, more ambitiously, joint efforts to seek a political solution to that conflict. Iran has so far been reluctant to endorse a plan that would result in Syria’s Bashar al-Assad leaving power, but there are some indications of increasing Iranian willingness to support a political transition.

Confidence-building measures could also include increased Coast Guard and Naval  maritime cooperation between the United States and Iran, as well as joint efforts to provide humanitarian aid and broker political agreements in other regional trouble spots, from Iraq to Afghanistan. Iranians have as much national pride as Americans — and treating Iran as a genuine partner in efforts to increase regional stability will help soothe the status and security anxieties driving the country’s nuclear program.

Finally, we shouldn’t discount the value of old-fashioned cultural and educational cooperation and exchanges. As part of a negotiated roadmap to normalization, why not include stepped-up efforts to encourage medical and scientific collaboration on matters unrelated to nuclear technologies? What about a well-funded program designed to bring young Iranians to study or work in the United States, with a reciprocal program bringing young Americans to Iran?

At the moment, Iran is an adversary, not a friend, and there’s no guarantee that such measures will lead to a harmonious friendship between the United States and Iran. After all, the nuclear issue isn’t the only barrier to good relations: Iran’s support for Hezbollah is another, and its dismal human rights practices also stand in the way.

But even if we never become friends, there are purely pragmatic reasons for staying close to our enemies: Increasing connections reduces incentives for conflict and augments incentives for collaboration. Enhancing connections and transparency also gives each nation a clearer understanding of the other’s capabilities and motivations, which makes misunderstandings and inadvertent slights and challenges less likely.

Will we all someday sing "Kumbayah" together in Tehran? I don’t know, I don’t care, and actually I hope not, since I don’t remember the words (and I doubt they sound better in Farsi). Bringing Iran closer isn’t something we should do out of sheer loving-kindness. It’s a path dictated by pure, hard-headed self-interest.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.