How (Not) to Damage Iran-U.S. Ties

By Henry "Chip" Carey

Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has made stopping Iran’s nuclear program a central part of his campaign for president, telling an audience, “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will get a nuclear weapon. If we elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not.” But this mindless posturing about Iran on the campaign trail is not just bravado—it is the kind of rhetoric that could easily lead to violent conflict with Iran and Iran-backed extremists in Bahrain, Lebanon, and Gaza, threatening oil shipments in the Strait of Hormuz and endangering Israel's security. Rather than entering into conflict, Iran and the United States should accommodate their mutual security fears through negotiation, a proposal for which Obama was ridiculed by Republicans in 2008. Such talks could lead to a historic rapprochement or at least buy time for Iran to democratize.

The U.S. has expressed worries about the consequences of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently stated that Israel might well attack Iran this spring. This led Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to declare on Friday, that Iran will retaliate against any attack, defiantly stating, “The Zionist regime is a cancerous tumor in the region.” One can understand why Israel would take the Supreme Leader at his word and respond with military action.

Panetta apparently does not think Israel is bluffing, despite  U.S. concerns over Israel taking the initiative. Israel does not have sufficient capability to fend off attacks in all the places that Iran might strike back, not just against Israel itself from Lebanon and Gaza, but also against U.S. allies in the region through Shiite proxies in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia.

The world is uncertain if Iran’s covert and illegal uranium enrichment is designed to produce a bomb or merely give it the expertise to develop one. But either way, it seems that the United States and its allies are unwilling to wait out Iran’s decision. Realists believe states are rational actors responding to incentives, mainly threats to their security. They see Iran’s possible pursuit of nuclear weapons as a predictable response to the threats it faces, as they are surrounded by nuclear powers like Russia, Israel, Pakistan, and India; the U.S. Fifth Fleet; and remaining U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lesson of NATO’s successful intervention against a non-nuclear Libya is an additional motivation for obtaining the bomb. Why wouldn’t Iran want a bomb under such circumstances? Producing a nuclear weapon would make Iran an unquestioned power player, giving them leverage in the region and on the global stage.

While some pundits support military solution for Iran's nuclear program, liberals would emphasize that such actions would only delay Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons for a few years, if at all. What would occur is that an Israeli or U.S. invasion would make the production of nuclear weapons by Iran a self-fulfilling prophecy. Iran would obtain nuclear weapons to deter future attacks because its deterrence through conventional means had failed. Thus, any way to buy more time would avoid the disastrous scenario of Iranian retaliation to an Israeli invasion, which would inevitably drag the US into conflict.

Helpfully,  Iran’s disastrous economic crisis puts it in a situation where access to sanctioned foreign markets could solve its over-dependence on oil exports, giving the West some leverage. Clearly, both the U.S. and Iran would benefit if they cooperated. Unfortunately, no such agreements have been successfully negotiated. Both Iran and the United States view concessions as a sign of weakness, rather than as an opportunity for cooperation. As a result they continue to ratchet up tension, possibly reaching an inevitable breaking point.

Nevertheless eventually, there may be a democratic solution for Iran, as there was in Turkey which has enjoyed an economic revival from its own democratization. So long as the West is threatening to attack the country, there is very little space for the opposition to dissent as the regime is more like likely to arrest and detain its political opponents. But if the West were to guarantee Iran's security in return for completely open elections, this could lead to less repression. This would give the Iranian opposition more space to agitate for meaningful political reforms.

This along with direct negotiations could be a strong incentive for Tehran to open up. However, U.S. public opinion has become utterly opposed to talks with Iran despite the possibility that negotiations could make Iran more secure and less likely to lash out against perceived threats. Negotiations would also offer Iran the chance to diversify its economy and grow through integration with world markets.

There have been instances of cooperation in the past, which gives hope that negotiation is possible. One instance of this cooperation occurred when opposition leaders Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami negotiated the release of hostages in Lebanon. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker negotiated directly with Iran on the latter’s involvement inside Iraq. Iran was also helpful in supporting the Afghan Northern Alliance during the overthrow of the Taliban regime and cooperated in the formation of a  post-Taliban government in the Bonn talks, as James Dobbins has emphasized. Britain, France, and the UK almost reached an agreement that would have integrated Iran into the global economy, via its inclusion into the World Trade Organization and EU trade agreements. Russia also came close to negotiating a research reactor agreement for using enriched uranium originally from Iran.

The constant repetition of U.S. and Israeli policy for years that Iran cannot have a bomb gratuitously puts U.S. credibility at risk. In fact, it is not likely that Iran would ever use the bomb against Israel on its own initiative. Iran know that the U.S. would have to respond to an Iranian attack on Israel. But a premature invasion of Iran would backlash, likely creating Iranian-led, Islamic extremist movements aimed to upset the balance of power in the Middle East. An American or Israeli invasion of Iran is more likely to arouse sympathy for extremism throughout the Muslim world. In the meantime, the use of diplomacy with positive incentives—not just negative sanctions that only strengthen the ruling radicals—could prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Israel and the U.S. are already involved in a covert war with Iran. One or both are alleged to have been involved in the Stuxnet computer virus attack meant to sabotage Iran's nuclear program and the assassination of Iranian scientists. However, these actions, regardless of how successful or unsuccessful they are, continue to stoke Islamic fundamentalism. Iranian-sponsored terrorist acts are also likely to increase—perhaps even inside the U.S. and Israel. Over the past 30 years Iran has shown its willingness and ability to strike back with increased sophistication and would also likely respond with cyber attacks of their own.

The use of soft power is still our most potent weapon. Iranian civil society is still disposed to like the U.S., but only if we reject military action. Attempting more accommodation with Iran is not a sign of weakness. It recognizes the current dilemma: There are no optimal options, but the worst one is starting a war.

The U.S. does not want Iran to have a bomb, but it should refrain from going to war with them to stop it, and prevent Israel from launching an attack of its own. At this point in time, the United States needs to protect Israel by stating, in no uncertain terms, what the consequences of any attack, conventional or nuclear, are against Israel. They should stop there though. Covert and overt military actions are likely to induce Iran to weaponize rather than to cooperate. Rapprochement should be the ultimate goal of any Iranian-U.S. negotiations. But even if they fail, they buy time for democratic forces in Iran to take power and move Iran away from its confrontational approach. To launch a war would make that impossible, only increasing the Iranian regime's desire to obtain a nuclear weapon and antagonizing Iran's generally pro-American population. Peace between the U.S., Israel, and Iran would no longer be an option.



Henry "Chip" Carey is Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is the author of:  Privatizing the Democratic Peace: Policy Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding and Reaping What You Sow: A Comparative Examination of Torture Reform in the United States, Israel, France and Argentina.

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