Accessibility links

Iran: U.S. Experts Discuss Washington's Policy Options

  • Nikola Krastev --> Panel participants Pollack, Haas, and Gerecht (left to right) (RFE/RL) A panel of U.S.-based experts gathered at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on April 5 to discuss the policy implications for Washington of the nuclear standoff with Iran. The panelists agreed that the Iranian public is not obsessed with the nuclear issue -- saying it is instead the regime's obsession. They identified five main goals of U.S. policy toward Iran: They include forcing Tehran to reconsider its nuclear policy and end its support of terrorism, enlisting Iranian cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pressing Iran to change its tack on the Palestinian-Israeli problem. The fifth goal concerns democracy and human rights in Iran.

NEW YORK, April 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Richard Haas, who is the president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, said there are four options toward Iran and they are not mutually exclusive. A diplomatic option would include the U.S. essentially making an offer to Iran for either zero or a very limited, strictly controlled and verifiable nuclear capacity.

"And we offer them some package of carrots and sticks to get them there saying: 'If you do this -- here's the rewards; if you don't do this -- here's the limited penalties, sanctions -- political, economic, and we can talk about sequencing and the rest,'" Haas said.

The second option, Haas said, is a military one.

"It would be a preventive military option, not preemptive because there's no imminent threat of use [of nuclear weapons]," Haas said. "So it would be preventive to basically short-circuit the development. Let's take off the table that we could do with Iran what we did with Iraq. Let's take off the war option, invasion, regime change, and all that. But something more limited, to basically destroy or set back their nuclear development -- a classic preventive military strike."

The third option, Haas said, is to focus on the regime itself: "If Sweden were to have nuclear weapons tomorrow, we wouldn't worry as much about it. We would not be having this meeting here today. Clearly the character of regimes matters at least as much or more as the nature of their capacities."

The fourth option is the predictive option, Haas said, which means simply living with the expectation that Iran will eventually possess nuclear weapons and to think about deterrence. He says some call that "the North Korea" option.

Forcing The U.S. Hand?

Panelist Reuel Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative in the Middle East. He said he doesn't believe the diplomatic option is viable with Iran. All U.S. efforts at diplomatic engagement with Iran so far have been either "disastrous" or "embarrassing", he said.

The fear in Iran that the United States might strike militarily was very strong in 2003, Gerecht said, immediately after the invasion of Iraq. This was when the regime demonstrated flexibility, he said, particularly on Afghanistan. But those concerns are rapidly disappearing as Tehran watches what kind of quagmire the United States has found itself in in Iraq.

The only way for diplomacy to work, Gerecht argued, is to firmly convince Iran's leaders that military strikes are inevitable if they walk away from the negotiating table. At this point, he said, there is no such assurance for Tehran and the U.S. position is weak as a result.

Within the CIA, Gerecht said, there are currently about 175 people on the Iran desk and 35 analysts. He said the CIA is in a "weakened state" when it comes to Iran.

"I don't think that democracy promotion and support will ever be terribly serious until we do start the very difficult, and slow, and brutal, and ugly process to have some clandestine capacity to support dissidents in the country," Gerecht said.

Gerecht predicted that Washington will give the United Nations three months or less to see whether the Security Council steps forward. After that, he suggested, there will be a large political debate in the United States.

"Is the danger from having the clerical regime gone nuclear, is that [danger] sufficient to contemplate preventive military strikes? We have not had that debate; we are going to have that debate," Gerecht said. "I think we should have that debate sooner, not later, so we don't have to get bogged down. And the other issue is democracy promotion. I do not view those two as mutually exclusive. Because in the end everybody agrees, whether it's the United States or Europe -- this is all really in the end about regime change."

Deeply Troubling Issue

Panelist Kenneth Pollack is director of research at Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Pollack said the Iranian nuclear issue is by far the most troubling issue facing the United States. Once Iran acquires nuclear weapons, he insisted, it will make the other issues at stake vastly more difficult to resolve.

"We [in the United States] have to keep at the very least the terrorism issue as part of this, because it is absolutely intertwined with the issue of the nuclear program," Pollack said.

Pollack said he is firmly convinced that the military threat is not the only thing that is bringing Iran to the table. The state of the economy is the issue that worries Iran's clerics the most, he said, because they are aware that economic strife brings popular dissent and unhappiness.

"They are extremely concerned that the Europeans will join U.S. in comprehensive economic sanctions against them. And everything that they've ever been trying to do -- arguably since 1990 but certainly since 2002 -- is to keep the United States and Europe from coming to a common position on economic sanctions against them," Pollack said. "That is their great nightmare."

The real debate that will corner Tehran, Pollack said, is when Iran's policymakers have to choose between a nuclear program and a healthy economy. He argued that if the Europeans and Japan agree to join the United States in a sanctions regime, Iran will find it simply impossible to have both.
What Would Sanctions Mean?

Economic sanctions could further undermine Iran's already shaky economy (Fars)

MOVING TOWARD SANCTIONS: If the United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions on Iran, domestic support for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will wane, according to ALEX VATANKA, Eurasia editor for Jane's Information Group.
Vatanka told a February 24 RFE/RL briefing that "economic sanctions will hurt the average Iranian" and, consequently, many "will blame the ruling clerics" for making life difficult and "impairing the country's long term development."
Vatanka said sanctions would be a serious challenge to the Iranian government. If harsh economic sanctions were imposed, Iran's poorest population will be hurt the hardest -- and might react "as they did in the 1970s and protest in the streets." Sanctions on travel, Vatanka said, would hurt a many Iranians because "Iran is a nation of small traders" who depend on the ability to travel to earn an income. According to Vatanka, unemployment in Iran is estimated at 30 percent, "so small trading is essential to survival." Although current U.S. sanctions "haven't worked," he said, "Iranians fear an oil embargo." He stressed that "oil revenues are a major part of the economy, so it is critical to look at this sector."
Should negotiations with the European Union and the UN fail, Vatanka believes that Iran would follow a "North Korea model," since Ahmadinejad's base of support among the "Islamist militias" has been "urging withdrawal from the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]." The Iranian government's "tactic" so far, Vatanka said, is governed by the belief that "by shouting the loudest, you'll get concessions [from the West]."


Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's coverage of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.