Observations on a nuclear Iran

Far from changing Iran's mind about continuing its nuclear program, sanctions and attacks are likely to do the opposite.

    Attacks or greater sanctions are unlikely to lead to Iran's acceptance of Western demands [GALLO/GETTY]

    Washington DC - It was August of 1990, just days after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. The region and the wider world were still in shock. Into that murky scene, however, I well recall a single ray of clarity, which came in the form of an insightful essay from foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland: the world, he said, could tolerate an aggressive and bloodthirsty dictator in Baghdad, or it could tolerate a powerful Iraqi army capable of seizing the oilfields of its neighbours; but it should not, and could not, tolerate both at once.

    Five months on, the Iraqi army was attacked by a western-led international coalition. Even if it did not articulate its choice in these terms, the international community, unable to influence Iraqi intent, had opted to diminish its capability. Twelve years, one war, and a lengthy and crippling sanctions regime later, on the eve of a threatened US invasion of Iraq, this correspondent was at pains to reassure regime opponents that they should stay the course, that they would soon have assistance in delivering themselves from the hands of the dictator.

    Elaborating a bit freely on stated policy, I asserted that the question as to whether or not there were viable weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq did not matter. After all, the UN had clearly documented that Iraq possessed the intellectual capital to build them. The capability, therefore, could not be eradicated. Saddam had already demonstrated the willingness and intent not only to build WMD, but to employ them against his neighbours, and even his own people. As capability could not be addressed, intent would have to be. The only option, therefore, was regime change; and only an invasion could effect it.

    Now, a similar calculus is at work in the context of another Gulf power thought to be close to developing nuclear weapons. The issue, as always, revolves around the factors of capability and hostile intent. The West, Israel, and most of Iraq's Arab neighbours are deeply mistrustful of Iranian intent, and are therefore adamant that Iran should not develop nuclear weapons capability.

    Iran's intentions

    The question of intent cuts two ways: Does Iran intend to develop nuclear weapons - or at least a so-called break-out capability - and, if so, how would it intend to use such a capacity if it got it?

    Inside Story: Can Iran survive the sanctions?

    On the first question, the Iranians are clearly fostering a climate of ambiguity. Iran could meet all the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding transparency, and thus assuage international fears, if it chose to. It does not. The suspicion is that Iran's reluctance in this regard reflects a desire to develop and maintain an ability to quickly develop nuclear weapons if it should choose to do so, while preserving, in the meantime, a claimed right to international assistance in developing nuclear power.

    Thus, much of the discussion surrounding Iranian nuclear development revolves around ensuring Iranian compliance with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Surely, it is understandable that many, at least, in the international community would seek to use diplomacy, sanctions, and as many other non-military levers as possible to gain adequate assurances that Iran is in fact meeting its treaty obligations, and will continue to do so in future.

    The intent behind ever-more-stringent sanctions is to so increase pressure on the current regime as to convince it to meet international demands, or to visit sufficient discomfort on the Iranian population as to induce it to demand either a change in current policy, or a change of regime.

    All of this seems logical enough. The US and the West wish to force the Iranian regime and the Iranian people to make a choice, and to influence that choice in the desired direction. The only problem with this thinking is that there is no recognised Iranian expert of whom I am aware who thinks that sanctions will ever have the desired effect.

    Indeed, there appears to be a national consensus in Iran that Iranians should not only have the right to nuclear power, but to preserve all options in their own defence. That alone may not be a reason to abandon sanctions: experts are often wrong, and the West risks little in pursuing them - unconvincing Iranian threats to close the straits of Hormuz notwithstanding - at least until they produce considerably higher world oil prices.

    Saddam Hussein redux?

    However, should even the current sanctions on Iran's central bank fail to produce Iranian compliance, as seems almost certain, it will be time for the West to make some hard choices itself concerning available options.  

    In order to simplify the calculus, let us suppose that the Islamic Republic decided to remove all ambiguity concerning the first question of intent. Let us suppose that they opted to abandon the NPT, and to claim the right to produce nuclear weapons. What then? Surely the question is not just about possession of weapons. France has nuclear weapons, and seems to generate little concern. For that matter, so do Israel, Pakistan and India. The world, if not universally comfortable, seems quite willing to live with this situation.

    Is the case of Iran qualitatively different? And if so, is it sufficiently so to risk the unintended consequences attendant on war? Is this Saddam Hussein redux?

    "Clerics in Tehran are hardly devoid of calculation: quite the contrary. They are endlessly scheming... the Iranian regime has embraced self-preservation as a necessity of the highest order."

    Surely, the clerical dispensation in Tehran makes for an unlovely regime. If there were doubts on this score, the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections would have put them to rest. More troubling, the legacy of the Islamic Republic is one of violent skullduggery, whether perpetrated directly against its oppositionists abroad, or through surrogates.

    And the fact that the exercise of power in Tehran is anything but monolithic, and accords wide latitude to radical actors such as the Revolutionary Guard, does not generate greater confidence in the aggregate good sense and stability of the regime.

    All that said, the clerics in Tehran are hardly devoid of calculation: quite the contrary. They are endlessly scheming, and masters at finely calibrating ends with means, even when neither of them meet with Western approval. Far from being oblivious of its own survival, as some breathless alarmists would claim, the Iranian regime has embraced self-preservation as a necessity of the highest order.

    'Coldly rational'

    Indeed, Imam Khomeini himself, in what some regard as a blatant heresy, raised the survival of the Islamic regime in Tehran to the level of an obligation under Islam - a justification to which he made reference when, in the face of possible regime destabilisation in August of 1988, he accepted a ceasefire with Saddam Hussein. And unlike the late Iraqi dictator, modern Iran has never invaded its neighbours, nor seriously threatened to do so.

    There is a growing chorus of those in the US who advocate resort to military measures against Iran in the event that sanctions do not impede their perceived progress toward nuclear-weapons status. And the prospect that Israel might decide unilaterally to take military action in a manner which would inevitably implicate the US seems to elicit nothing but passive acquiescence in Washington.

    No one can seriously suggest that limited measures, such as air or missile strikes, would do anything more than slow Iranian nuclear development, and then perhaps only marginally. Indeed, from the pattern of violent attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists, it would appear that a campaign of limited warfare, most likely by Israel, has begun.

    The Iranian reaction to such attacks does not appear to make Iranian acceptance of Western demands more likely. Indeed, what we can expect in future is a pattern of reprisals which, once begun, may be difficult to control. And anyone even contemplating an invasion of a hostile nation of the size and capabilities of Iran in order to effect regime change is flatly daft, even before one takes the asymmetric options available to the Persian state into account.

    There may be good reasons to attempt to dissuade Iran, through a variety of means and appeals, from its apparent nuclear course, and there are many options available to contain the Iranian threat, such as it may be. But in calculating risks and gains, and assessing the impact of combined intent and capability in the Islamic Republic, regional powers, the West, and the international community at large would be well advised to do so with a coldly rational eye.

    Are we facing an August, 1990, moment? I think not.

    Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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