Cognitive Dissonance: The State of America’s Iran Policy

Why would the Iranian clerical regime, which has clandestinely spent hundreds of millions, if not a few billion, dollars over twenty years on nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, give up its quest for the bomb—especially when it is an issue that unites, not divides, the ruling clerical elite? Former president Mohammad Khatami, the “left-wing” reformist cleric European and American diplomats love to miss, never once seriously suggested he had reservations about Iran’s nuclear “energy” program during his presidency. And he hasn’t done so since leaving office. Khatami, who sat as president on the Islamic Republic’s national security council, and his inner-circle reformist allies, many of whom were present at the birth of the clerical regime’s nuclear-weapons program, undoubtedly could have privately taken issue with the bomb between 1997 and 2005. The former interior minister Abdallah Nuri, the audaciously bold disciple of Grand Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Montazeri, who publicly challenged Iran’s ruler, Ali Khamenei, to open a debate about the restoration of relations with the United States, didn’t, so far as I can tell, ever challenge the development of nukes.

Clerical Iran is a leaky place, where internecine disagreements among the mullahs usually boil over into the public square. Yet go ahead and try to find a discussion—a rumor of a debate—among the ruling clerical elite about the merits of possessing the bomb during Khatami’s presidency, which is when the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program made perhaps its most significant progress. Although one may question whether the atomic weapons program is as popular among the Iranian public as is often suggested by the Western press (how one poses this question to Iranians, who generally have a sharp distaste for their clerical overlords and anything that may reinforce their power, is key), it’s hard to see any meaningful “atomic” split so far among Iran’s ruling clerics, the Middle East’s most successful practitioners of machtpolitik.

So given this apparent unity, what’s the Bush administration’s preferred solution to a rogue state’s quest for a bomb? Bribery. We will offer the Iranians trade and investment goodies, and a “safe” way to have nuclear energy, at least safer than what we once offered the North Koreans. I’ve never met a European or American official who believes the clerical regime wants a “safe” nuclear program, but the demands of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, at least according to the Europeans, oblige us to offer the clerics peaceful nuclear power. And if bribery doesn’t work, then severe banking coercion backed however tepidly by limited industrial and trade sanctions will follow, assuming the Europeans and Japanese agree.

Now, I’ve been to London, Paris, and Berlin fairly often to talk about Iran, and have met European officials from the EU-3 countries regularly in Washington. It is certainly true that the French, Germans, and Brits, who initially started the nuclear discussions with Tehran after the Islamic Republic’s massive clandestine facility at Natanz was revealed in 2002 by an Iranian opposition group, have become increasingly serious about countering the mullahs’ atomic ambitions and much less anti-American in tone and method. The EU-3-led negotiations, which began in fear of George W. Bush’s possible bellicosity toward another axis-of-evil member, have occasionally pushed the French into taking more aggressive rhetorical positions against the mullahs than has the United States. More or less, this process has worked exactly as Nicholas Burns, the Undersecretary for Political Affairs, and the major-domo at State for Iran policy, intended: Give the Europeans some responsibility for American foreign policy and they will act more responsibly. The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also helped.

It’s probably accurate to say, nonetheless, that the Europeans really aren’t very sanguine about the chances of bribing or coercing the mullahs into good behavior. Some—mostly Germans and Brits—will express the hope that the Bush administration be more capacious and preemptive in its incentives. Drop all trade sanctions immediately, offer other commercial bennies, and talk more loudly and generously about resolving once and for all the Shah-era Iranian debt issue (the clerical regime has never been able to decide how many billions the United States supposedly still owes it–accounting methods are somewhat idiosyncratic in the Islamic Republic). Last but not least, the United States should offer security guarantees to the clerics. Translated, this means that the Bush administration would henceforth stop using rude pro-democracy, anti-clerical language, secure Iran’s admission into some kind of new regional security organization (without spooking, of course, the Arab Gulfies, who in part provide the United States bases and other assistance precisely because they fear Iranian intentions), and publicly promise never to invade Iran. The Germans, Brits, and American “realists” who like this line of argument are never particularly specific on whether this public disavowal of the use of force is an unconditional promise, or whether it would be qualified. For example, if the clerical regime did a Khobar Towers II and again killed American soldiers, would that constitute grounds for an invasion, or perhaps just an airborne military assault? They also never bother to give a history of promises kept by the Islamic Republic.

The French, who’ve been burned in negotiations (and bombed) by the Iranians, and who have the most pessimistic timeline about when Tehran will likely go nuclear (one hears a three-year estimate in Paris and considerable derision for the CIA’s five-to-ten year guess), do not push “security guarantees” as vigorously as do the Germans and the British. One has the sense that they do not believe that the Islamic Republic of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is a status quo-seeking force, yearning to be just a recognized regional, formerly terrorism-fond power, focused on the economic well-being of its citizenry. As the French scholar Bernard Hourcade has noted, twenty-seven years after the Islamic revolution, there are fewer than 3,000 Westerners living in Iran (including diplomats and their children). And many, if not most, of the Western businessmen who work in Iran live in isolated communities, by the design of the clerical government. “This situation is approved and imposed by the Islamic policy-makers,” writes Hourcade, “who dream about a country where a modern economy and technology would exist in a form of quarantine and would have no relation with the people’s way of life.”

Some senior US officials hope that American participation in the EU-3 dialogue with Iran offers the clerical regime something its wants—regular direct contact, if not restored diplomatic relations, with the United States. That view is probably the polar opposite of the truth. There is very little evidence to suggest that Mohammad Khatami actually wanted to restore relations with the United States. His actions, his speeches, and his written works, which consistently depicted the United States as a technologically accomplished, liberty-crazed, energetic but declining cultural contagion capable of ruining Islamic civilization, didn’t suggest he would want to see the US embassy reopen in Tehran. Needless to say, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are less open-minded and culturally curious than Khatami.

The same US officials who hold out the hope that the US and the Europeans might, just possibly, have something the clerics would want in exchange for suspending their nuclear program are by no means certain that such an Iranian desire for greater direct US contact constitutes an effective bargaining chip in the EU-3-led negotiations. Senior American officials who handle Iran are not, as they were in 1997 when Khatami first won the presidency, delusionally hopeful about the possibilities. Experience does matter, even among foreign-service officers who define success more by processes than results. If the clerical regime were to seize the moment and “temporarily” suspend its enrichment efforts, the odds are decent it could snag the United States into a diplomatic process from which Washington would have a hard time withdrawing, and in which it would be reluctant to be more aggressive than its European counterparts. The Europeans, including the French, have never been animated about the enforcement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol, which in theory allows the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Association to visit any site without warning. It is doubtful the State Department would be willing to trash the whole beloved EU-3 process if it suspected the Iranians were building centrifuges inside a Revolutionary Guard military compound. Protracted discussions (and an Iranian nuclear weapon), not economy-crushing sanctions, would probably be the most likely outcome.

Let me make an assertion which I believe to be true but which no US official working on Iran will publicly admit: The Bush administration’s Europe-centered diplomacy to derail the clerical regime’s quest for nuclear weaponry has almost no chance of success and the senior officials directing America’s part in these EU-3 negotiations with Tehran know that they are unlikely to delay, let alone stop, the mullahs’ pursuit of the bomb.

Some officials certainly hope that the possible fiscal coercion devised at the Treasury Department by Undersecretary Stuart Levey will be sufficient to make the mullahs pause, if not stop, their program. And Mr. Levey’s strategy, which essentially would make it impossible for the clerical regime to use the international banking system, is a clever and potentially very aggressive means of pressuring the regime to relent. However, Iran is a big oil state, with an enormous cash flow and substantial trade connections all over the globe. It is, to say the least, uncertain whether there is sufficient collective will among the Europeans and the Japanese to make this strategy plausible. The better bet would be against the Treasury’s plans. It’s likely that most US officials who deal with Iran probably are not particularly optimistic that they can effectively align the international financial community against the clerics.

So what do we do? We can certainly try to support the democracy movement and dissidents in Iran more aggressively. But this is going to be an enormously difficult task even under the best of circumstances. Although the clerical regime has always had considerable fear of the unexpected spark that ignites the dissatisfaction and frustrations of young Iranian men, there is no reason to believe Iran’s internal security forces, who are numerous and, when necessary, quite brutal, are in danger of cracking. Detest the ruling clergy as they may, Iran’s young men still appear unwilling in any significant number to meet the regime on the streets. The dissident pro-democracy clergy has either been broken—Abdallah Nuri, the bravest of them all, was physically and psychologically destroyed in prison—or gone quiescent, politely protesting the regime in academic or clerical journals or through solicitations to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the pro-democratic leader of Iraq’s traditional clergy and now the most esteemed Shi’ite religious jurisconsult in the world.

Although Iran’s growing democratic culture is unlikely to be stopped, and it’s pro-American disposition is unlikely to change unless Washington goes Scowcroftian and seeks to placate Tehran, a militant, dictatorial Islam remains strong among the country’s ruling elite. Unless the unexpected happens—some internal or external shock convulses and cripples the clerical system—the mullahs will surely get the bomb long before the people get a real democracy. And the circumstances in Washington aren’t propitious. The CIA hates pro-democracy covert action (it’s difficult, requires a level of knowledge and linguistic skill which is beyond today’s clandestine service, and is always politically problematic in Washington). The State Department doesn’t like it either, and doesn’t trust the CIA to undertake such action (an astute judgment call on State’s part). And many European officials are equally queasy about such things, seeing them as counterproductive to the spirit of dialogue and the undying European hope that the US will make some “grand bargain”—which means any serious democracy-promotion inside Iran is verboten. The Bush administration ought to begin a crash course in covert and overt Iranian democracy-promotion, firing all those in the bureaucracies who seek to sabotage the mission.

But this isn’t going to happen. Although a sense of urgency about Iran is growing in Washington, the administration has not—despite occasional rhetoric from the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State—been shocked into much action. As with so many other major foreign-policy issues, the Bush administration, worn out by Iraq, is operating on momentum, capable only of continuing the logic of policies from the first term. It does not want to see the Iranian train wreck ahead of it. The administration is pushing an approach that it really doesn’t believe will work, but it doesn’t want to break from the process since that, among other things, will inevitably force the administration to have the great Iran debate: Is it better to preventively bomb the clerics’ nuclear facilities or allow the mullahs to have nuclear weapons? And if the administration were to acquiesce to the clerical bomb, it would, of course, empower its worst enemies in Tehran and spiritually invigorate all Muslim radicals who live on American weakness. The United States and the Europeans have now aligned “the West” against the regime in Tehran. Acquiesce and the revolutionary hard core triumphs. We will whet their appetites, externally and internally. As Iranian society continues to sheer away from the ruling elite, that elite has kept its radicalism, especially among the diehards raised in the Revolutionary Guards, like Ahmadinejad. (Ahmadinejad, exactly like Khatami, ran against the detested ruling order, gaining him victory even though his temperament and beliefs are probably profoundly at odds with most Iranians.)

Unintentionally, America’s diplomatic efforts to find a multilateral and peaceful end to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear-weapons program have made the price of failure exponentially worse. Add a failure in Iran to a failure in Iraq to a failure in Afghanistan, and we could supercharge Islamic radicalism in a way never before seen. The widespread and lethal impression of American weakness under the Clinton administration, which did so much to energize bin Ladenism in the 1990s, could look like the glory years of American power compared to what the Bush administration may leave in its wake.

Which brings us back to the question that senior US officials have been assiduously avoiding since 2002, but which nevertheless defines the nature and intensity of America’s diplomatic dialogue with the Europeans and the Iranians. Would you rather have the mullahs get a nuclear weapon or would you rather have the United States try to militarily stop them from acquiring the bomb through preventive air strikes? Do you fear the repercussions of a nuclear Islamic Republic more than you fear the repercussions from an American attack? As I have written elsewhere, I think the risks to us and others from a nuclear-armed clerical regime are too great and that we should make every effort, including repeated military strikes, to thwart the clerics’ quest for the bomb. Containment and deterrence seem a poor fall-back strategy. Iran is too rich in oil and gas, and the likelihood of Iran’s neighbors, as well as the Europeans, growing more fearful and thus more accommodating to a nuclear-armed clerical regime is high. Americans and Europeans did a poor job of responding to Iranian terrorism in the past, when the Islamic Republic didn’t have the bomb in its arsenal. We, not the Iranians, are the ones most likely to be deterred by nuclear chicken.

It seems unthinkable that the United States would, for example, unleash any massive military strike against Iran that would kill thousands of innocent Iranians for the terrorism of its dictatorial leadership. The theory of deterrence just doesn’t give that much comfort to Western powers confronting terrorism-fond radical Islamic states. We have never before confronted a terrorism-supporting regime whose very identity and survival is inextricably tied to divinely-sanctified anti-Americanism. We can easily think up many reasons why we would not want to bomb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites, but all of these reasons are subsidiary to how you calculate the risk of giving a nuclear weapon to Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yes, it will be difficult to bomb all of the sites in Iran, but the most critical are well known—Natanz, Isfahan, Arak, Tehran, and Bushehr. These facilities took the Iranians years to build under ideal circumstances. Under siege, building new sites clandestinely will be a demanding, time-consuming task. The issue isn’t feasibility, but the determination to strike whenever required since the assessment of risk does not allow any other course of action. Delay the program by several years, and you may end it. Delay the program, and you could deny the nuke to extremists who would’ve used or exploited it. (A parallel with Saddam Hussein after Osirak comes to mind.) Supervening events can always change history to your advantage. If you think the risks of a clerical bomb are too high—that a nuclear weapon in the hands of Islamic militants in an age of increasing Islamic terrorism is unacceptable—then you will be in favor of striking, knowing the grave repercussions from such strikes.

Stay tuned for the Islamic Republic to once again aggressively lay claim to the leadership of Islam’s struggle against the West. Be prepared for the ideological marriage under Iran’s nuclear-protected auspices of radical Sunnis and Shi’ites against the United States. And even if you’re not in favor of the strikes, diplomatic common sense and a minimal comprehension of Iran’s internal power politics ought to encourage a willingness regularly to allude to the possibility of these strikes. Fear of America will be a key ingredient in any successful diplomatic conclusion of this affair. (The administration really ought to consider giving a subvention to Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker, who sees the Bush White House preparing for war against Iran, since he is the only one engaged, unintentionally of course, in effective psy-ops against the mullahs.) If there are influential reasonable men in Tehran who fear the repercussions of trying to go nuclear, we should allow them to make the argument that Iran’s current rulers have set the country on a collision course with the world’s only and angry superpower. Such moderate voices will never triumph if the Islamic Republic’s hardcore press against the Americans and find equivocation and fear.

Odds are the Bush administration will acquiesce to Khamenei’s bomb. It has been overwhelmed and deflated by Iraq. The “Iraqi” arguments against bombing Iran are among the weakest proffered by the anti-bombing critics—would that we only had to worry about Iranian mischief in Mesopotamia. But Iraq has, it appears, robbed the administration of its will in the Middle East and beyond. Odds are the American “realists” will get their chance to see what it’s like to live with a nuclear clerical regime. I’ll take a bet that they, the Europeans, and many in the Middle East, won’t at all like what Tehran’s “pragmatists” do with their new toy.


Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • A Cure Worse than the Disease by Ted Galen Carpenter

    Cato vice president for defense and foreign policy studies Ted Galen Carpenter argues Gerecht’s strategy of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities may be harder than advertised and that “thousands of innocent Iranians would perish in U.S. air strikes.” Such an attack might trigger a “massive regional crisis.” “America’s troubles with the Islamic world do not yet constitute a war of civilizations,” Carpenter writes, “but Gerecht’s strategy could well produce that result.” Carpenter argues the U.S. should try to persuade Iran to give up its nuke program by offering a “grand bargain,” and if that doesn’t work, should pursue a policy of containment and deterrence, which, while “nerve-wracking,” has proved effective against deadlier and more fanatical regimes.

  • We Have the Right Policy Now and Better Options for the Future by Anthony H. Cordesman

    In his reply to Reuel Marc Gerecht’s lead essay, Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues the U.S. must exhaust all its diplomatic options before taking military action against Iran, especially given the shaky situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In any case, Cordesman argues, airstrikes are unlikely to be succeed in stopping the Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Further, Iran already has lethal chemical and biological capacities, and the ability to strike back seriously in a variety of ways. If a strike becomes necessary after the exhaustion of non-military options, it would be better to wait until the targets are clearer. Containment and deterrence, Cordesman maintains, may be a more effective approach.

  • Before Bombing: A Three-Year Plan for Iran by Edward N. Luttwak

    Center for Strategic and International Studies senior advisor Edward N. Luttwak argues that if diplomatic efforts fail, “the United States must be ready to bomb the buildings that are likely to house critical processes and equipment.” This can be a single quick strike, and need not destroy all the many Iranian facilities, Luttwak argues, because “the purpose is not to solve the problem presented by Iran or even its nuclear program, but only to delay the acquisition of nuclear weapons as long as possible, in the hopes that a better regime comes along.” The Iranians can get nukes no sooner than three years, though, so within that time the U.S. should concentrate on weakening the Iranian regime through non-military punitive measures. Furthemore, Luttwak maintains that Iran could fragment along national lines. “There are at least 20 million Azeris in Western Iran who are increasingly determined to assert their nationality,” Luttwak say, and U.S. policy aimed at weakening Iran should support them.

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