Well into a new year, the U.S. debate on Iran remains stalled: trapped between “regime changers” versus “arms controllers,” “hawks” versus “doves,” and “idealists” versus “realists.” But the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released in December 2007 offers an opportunity to escape this straitjacketed debate. The United States can embrace a new strategy that pursues both the short-term goal of arms control and the long-term goal of democracy in Iran.
The intelligence estimate’s “key judgment” that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program thrusts the arms controllers onto center stage. Because the nuclear threat is reportedly no longer immediate, the arms controllers insist that the time is ripe for the United States to engage in direct diplomacy with Tehran. This, they say, is a way to change the Iranian regime’s behavior but not the regime itself—specifically, to persuade the mullahs to suspend their nuclear enrichment program.
Those who profess to back regime change argue that the intelligence estimate changes nothing and that the United States should continue to use coercive power, potentially including military strikes, to counter Tehran.
Both sides have part of the strategy right, but neither offers a longterm vision for dealing with Iran.
Military strikes are a poor tool for change. There would be no better way to prolong the life of the autocratic government in Tehran—to strengthen increasingly weakened radicals such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—than to bomb Iran. Thankfully, the NIE has made U.S. strikes less likely.
But it is also folly to presume that the NIE gives the United States license to bargain with Iran over its enrichment program and forgo any pressure on the regime. The intelligence estimate provides no evidence that Iran’s regime has become more compatible with U.S. national interests or the interests of the Iranian people. The regime continues to repress its people and support terrorist organizations that menace Israel and threaten to destabilize the governments in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. Iran’s suspension of its military nuclear program in 2003 was a tactical response to revelations about the clandestine operation, not a fundamental shift in strategic thinking. It still has not suspended its enrichment program, the key aspect of developing a nuclear weapon.
Yet focusing solely on enrichment would play into the hands of the mullahs, who see how the NIE has weakened the international coalition that supports serious sanctions. The mullahs thus have every incentive to stretch out any negotiations—while continuing to develop their enrichment program. Days after the NIE was made public in December 2007, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran plans to build a cascade of 50,000 centrifuges, surely enough to make highly enriched uranium. U.S. diplomatic tools available to alter this behavior are extremely weak; moreover, focusing only on enrichment would give Iran a free pass on its support for terrorism and human rights abuses.
The United States and its allies must develop an Iran strategy with both short- and long-term goals. Specifically, the United States must recommit to encouraging democracy inside Iran, because only a democratic regime will stop supporting terrorist groups abroad and repression at home. A democratic Iran is also less likely to restart a nuclear weapons program, especially if the United States and a new Iranian regime establish close military ties, a likely outcome.
Although counterintuitive to some, diplomatic engagement is required to pursue the long-term goal of democratization and, in parallel, the shortterm goal of arms control. The first U.S. offer of direct talks should include everything: the prospect of formal diplomatic relations and the lifting of sanctions; the potential supply and disposal of nuclear fuel (from a thirdparty organization or state); suspension of nuclear enrichment; an end to aid to Hezbollah and Hamas; and a serious discussion about stopping the arrests of students and human rights advocates and the persecution of union leaders and religious minorities. Discussion of new security institutions in the region should also be on the table. The United States’ experience in dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cold War demonstrates that it can work with a despotic regime without compromising its commitment to democracy and human rights.
Greater contact between Iranian and American societies will further undermine the regime’s legitimacy, strengthen the independence of Iranian economic and political groups, and perhaps even compel some leaders to exchange their diminishing political power for enduring property rights. During the past four decades, autocratic regimes rarely have crumbled as a result of isolation; more often, they have collapsed while seeking engagement with the West. Even the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred not when tensions between Moscow and Washington were high but during a period of engagement.
Will Iran follow a similar path? We will never know unless we try. Of course, the mullahs might reject the overtures, but their refusal would embolden the opposition inside Iran. And a serious attempt to engage the Islamic Republic now would strengthen the U.S. case for more coercive diplomatic and economic pressure, should they become necessary.