If we were to wake up tomorrow and learn that Canada or Belgium had secretly developed a nuclear weapon we would not be happy about it, but neither would it ruin our day. The reason is simple: all proliferation is not equal.
What matters as much as, or more, than a country's capability is its character. We care about the stability and orientation of the government in question - whether it might use nuclear weapons or give them to a terrorist group. All this has relevance for Iran and how the world chooses to react to its nuclear programme. What should shape the response is not simply what Iran develops in the laboratory, but how it develops politically.
This line of thinking weighs against a military strike by Israel or the US on Iranian nuclear facilities. Such a strike would at best delay the Iranian programme: it is impossible to destroy what is unknown, and it is not always possible to destroy what is known if the target is well-shielded. An attack would also trigger extensive Iranian retaliation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The oil price could triple to more than $200 a barrel in a matter of hours, choking off global economic recovery.
Just as important, a military strike on Iran would make it impossible for anyone inside the country to challenge the government lest he or she appear to be unpatriotic. The Revolutionary Guard, who lack legitimacy after stealing June's presidential election and turning Iran from a theocracy into a thugocracy, would gain a new lease of life. They would also have the perfect argument for making the rebuilding of Iran's nuclear program the highest priority.
One alternative to a military strike would be to live with an Iranian programme. Deterrence would define such a policy. Iran would need to know that any use of nuclear weapons would meet a devastating response. It should know, too, that handing over nuclear materials to any terrorist group, such as Hamas or Hizbollah, would be discovered (given the growing expertise in nuclear forensics) and deemed no different than an Iranian use of the material. Intelligence that Iran had put its nuclear forces on alert would be met with a pre-emptive attack on those forces.
It is likely, but not certain, that this would be sufficient to deter Iran's leaders. Steps would also need to be taken to protect countries in reach of Iranian aircraft or missile systems. Defensive systems would be provided and in selective cases security guarantees extended. The aim would be to ensure Iran could not threaten its neighbours with impunity and reduce the incentive of Iran's neighbours to develop nuclear weapons. A Middle East with multiple fingers on multiple triggers, something more likely to emerge if Iran proceeds down the nuclear path, is a recipe for disaster.
It is obvious that preventive military action and deterrence both have important drawbacks. It would be better to persuade Iran through a mix of incentives and sanctions to limit what it does in the nuclear realm. It is hard, though, to be confident of the prospects for this approach: history suggests that sanctions work best when they are employed for modest ends, have time to sink in and enjoy broad international support. It is not evident that any of these factors applies here given what is being sought, the pace of Iran's nuclear advance, and Russian and Chinese reluctance to jeopardise their commercial relations with Iran .
One recent development may, however, bode well for what sanctions can help achieve. Iran's stated willingness to allow inspections of what had been a secret enrichment site and to permit much of its enriched uranium to be sent to Russia suggests that the country's leaders are feeling anything but confident. They may fear a new round of popular unrest, should Iranians view new sanctions as the result of their government's ill-advised choices.
If Iran is sincere about being willing to reassure the international community about its nuclear activities, fine. If not, new sanctions should be introduced that target assets owned by the 125,000-strong Revolutionary Guard (who just acquired a majority share of the country's telecommunications company), and the oil and gas sector so central to Iran's economy. Russian and Chinese support (and United Nations endorsement) should be viewed as desirable but not essential.
The odds that sanctions will have an impact improve if the people of Iran are in the know. The goal is not to deny Iran a right to enrich uranium under international supervision. Nor is it to increase the hardship of the Iranian people. Rather, the world should make the argument that Iran could enjoy a higher standard of living, greater security and enhanced standing if it were to accept limits on its nuclear programme. It is important to portray Iran's nuclear activities as both unnecessary and a costly liability. The Iranian regime should be forced to explain to its own people just why it is willing to pay so much for nuclear weapons and suffer economic sanctions that increase the misery of the average Iranian.
The objective is to increase pressure on the Revolutionary Guard from below. Such pressure could lead to an improved policy on nuclear matters. Or, better yet, it could over time help change the regime, to one based on a more reasonable coalition of clerics, reformers, the traditional military and ordinary citizens. Such a regime might still hold a nuclear option, but its character would provide us with some grounds for comfort.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.