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A Third Option for Iran

Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 1, 2012

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Living with a nuclear-armed Iran or launching a preventive military attack both carry great costs and risks, making it essential to pursue a combination of enhanced sanctions and renewed diplomacy, says CFR President Richard N. Haass. "History suggests that it will be extraordinarily difficult to come to any acceptable negotiated outcome" with the current regime in Tehran, says Haass. "But I'm comfortable trying it, not as an alternative to sanctions or to other options, but simply as one element in an overall approach. And if it turns out that the Iranians are suddenly willing to accept limits on what they can do, coupled with very strict monitoring terms that we can live with, then it's possible that this issue could at least for the moment be stabilized, even if not resolved."

Is Iran going to be the number one foreign policy issue for the Obama administration this year?

I would argue the number one foreign policy challenge facing the United States today is what is going on inside the United States: our management of our economy, our aging infrastructure, our poor K -12 educational system, and our political divisions at home. What I would say about Iran is that it has the potential to be the dominant foreign policy development of the year, and vital U.S. national interests are involved.

I've never seen such schizophrenia among foreign policy experts on an issue. You have the cover of Foreign Affairs magazine last month publishing a story saying it is time for the United States to attack Iran, while other experts think that's crazy. Where do you come down on this?

I do not want to see Iran with nuclear weapons. If Iran were to get nuclear weapons, it would make an aggressive country even more aggressive. I believe if that happened, there's a possibility there could be a transfer of nuclear materials to groups like Hezbollah. It would make the Middle East extraordinarily unstable the next time, say, there were a crisis between Israel and Hezbollah. The proliferation wouldn't stop there. It would spread to other countries in the region, making the Middle East even more dangerous than it already is. So there are powerful arguments against allowing Iran to become a nuclear-weapon state. On the other hand, there are major risks and costs involved with a preventive military attack against Iran. It has the potential to lead to far higher oil prices for a prolonged period.

Iran has many ways it could retaliate in the region and globally, if it so chose. It could set back for a long time the prospects of significant political change in Iran and it might only buy you a couple of years, at which point Iran would have rebuilt its nuclear program in ways that could not be reached by additional military attacks. I say all this because both options--either living with a nuclear Iran or attacking Iran--are potentially costly and risky. Which is why at the moment, the best option is the third one, a version of current policy, which is to place as much economic pressure as one can on Iran--not that it will get them to end their nuclear program, but rather to lead the Iranians to calculate that the costs of proceeding as they are are simply too great, and therefore it makes sense to change their behavior.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has just had a delegation in Iran for three days to have talks about concerns over the militarization of Iran's nuclear program. They've come back to Vienna saying they held "good talks," and they're going to go back soon. Do you think the Iranians have decided to be serious on these negotiations?

Let me say a few things: One, the IAEA report last November makes clear that the only analysis and the only conclusion to reach is that the Iranians are proceeding in the direction of making nuclear weapons. They're not in the business of generating electricity. They're not in the business of building a greater capacity to develop medical isotopes. So let's begin with at least intellectual honesty. It's quite possible that the economic pressure, which we know is enough to hurt Iran economically--there are reports of a weakening currency and shortages of goods--will lead some in Iran to take a fresh look at negotiations. But there are several problems. One is we do not know if Iran is politically configured right now in a way that would allow them to negotiate. It's such a divided leadership.

Second of all, there's always the risk that there will be those in Iran who will use negotiations not as a means to resolve the issue, but simply as a way to buy time, to provide cover for continued work on their nuclear program. There may also be the possibility that even if the Iranians were genuine and even if they were organized, the gap between the most they would be willing to give up and what we in the outside world would be willing to accept might be too great. That said, I believe the United States--and the world community, for that matter--should introduce a diplomatic dimension to complement the sanctions--a honey and vinegar approach, if you will: the vinegar of the economic sanctions, the honey of the negotiated position.

The Obama administration came into office obviously looking to open a dialogue with Iran. Do you think there should be a reinvigorated effort?

I would be comfortable with putting forward a negotiating position at the same time we press ahead with increased economic sanctions, even as we prepare for military contingencies. We ought to move in every direction at the same time. We could also pursue other methods to frustrate the Iranian programs, say with computer viruses. I would suggest that we put forward a negotiating position that would put sharp limits on what the Iranians would be allowed to do and possess in the nuclear field. The specifics of those limits would be correlated directly to the degree of intrusive inspections and the confidence that we would be put in the position where we would know what the Iranians were doing, and the scope for cheating or secret behavior would be minimalized. And all of this would have to be done with time limits so that negotiations could not be used tactically to buy time so that Iran could confront the world with new realities involving nuclear weapons.

Should the United States try to have a private channel open to Iran?

I don't believe this is a conversation between the United States and Iran. I don't see any reason to limit the talks to United States and Iran.

So you are happy with the formula of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany?

I would be comfortable with a "five-plus-one." Again, this is not an issue between the United States and Iran. This is an issue between Iran and the international community.

The EU has proposed new talks with Iranians. And the Iranians have said they want to talk. I don't know what the status of those talks are.

Again, I'm not against talking, but we shouldn't delude ourselves. History suggests that it will be extraordinarily difficult to come to any acceptable negotiated outcome. But I'm comfortable trying it, not as an alternative to sanctions or to other options, but simply as one element in an overall approach. And if it turns out that the Iranians are suddenly willing to accept limits on what they can do, coupled with very strict monitoring terms that we can live with, then it's possible that this issue could at least for the moment be stabilized, even if not resolved. The negotiations should complement rather than be an alternative to increased sanctions and the possibility of the use of military force.

"[T]he best option is the third one, a version of current policy, which is to place as much economic pressure as one can on Iran, not that it will get them to end their nuclear program, but rather to lead the Iranians to calculate that the costs of proceeding are simply too great and therefore it makes sense to change their behavior."

Israel is obviously the most outspoken country warning about the Iranian threat. Some of their leaders have hinted that they're really ready to attack, but some say an attack is not needed now. Where do you think the Israeli-American relationship is affected by the Israeli concerns?

The Israelis have a way of looking at this issue, one which is somewhat different from the debate in the United States. The debate in the United States keeps talking about red lines--that if the Iranians were to reach a certain level of enriched uranium or some other threshold, then that would be a triggering action. The problem with that approach is you may not know it before Iran had nuclear arms. The Israeli approach, as I've come to understand it, is far more comprehensive and far more dynamic. And when the Minister for Defense Ehud Barak speaks about it, what I believe he is saying is that Israel cannot allow Iran to reach a point where, to use his language, "Iran enjoys a zone of immunity."

What does he mean by that? What he is suggesting is Israel cannot allow Iran to reach a point where it would have produced a sufficient amount of nuclear material in so many protected places and accomplished so many other aspects of its nuclear program that an Israeli military strike, even if relatively successful, would still not be able to set back the Iranian program meaningfully, i.e., for several years. And if Iran ever reaches this point with a combination of the quality and quantity of its nuclear program juxtaposed against what Israel could accomplish militarily, that would be unacceptable. So from the Israeli point of view, we are not talking about an individual red line; what we are talking about is a much more complex calculation of the totality of an Iranian program against what Israel could conceivably destroy in a preventive raid. And that seems to me to suggest that Israel's tolerance and its timeline is more limited than ours or anyone else's.

Does the United States have influence with the Israelis on this question?

Influence is just that. It's influence. The Israelis will, I expect, take American influence, interests and considerations into account. But the Israeli leadership, if they reach certain conclusions about what was essential for their country's national interests, would weigh American considerations but not necessarily give the United States a veto over Israel's actions. For Israel, this would be an extraordinarily difficult decision. On the other hand, the stakes are enormous. So we could wake up to a situation where the Israelis will have decided to act, and that's one of the scenarios we in the United States have to be prepared for.

Would that draw the United States into a war with Iran?

There's always that possibility that once you light a fuse, you do not know how things will unfold. History is replete with lessons that it's easier to start wars than it is to stop them. But if Israel were to act, the United States and others would still have tools to try to manage the crisis moving forward. You can think of deterrence in the sense of trying to prevent the conflict; you can also think of deterrence within conflicts. So if Israel were to ever attack, the United States would need to think about how it would try to manage events from that point on. There is a range of potential Iranian responses. What the United States says, what the United States does at that point could conceivably influence or affect Iranian responses. This has the potential to get incredibly complicated, incredibly messy, but again, you have to weigh it against the cost of not acting. We've reached a point where neither option--either acquiescing to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability or launching a military strike--is very good. This is what pushes me in the direction of seeing whether some combination of enhanced sanctions coupled with a diplomatic initiative can work.

Back to the diplomatic issue--the United States has not been able to do much or hasn't tried; I don't know which it is.

Given the divisions within the Iranian leadership, it's not clear to me that any diplomatic initiative would work. You put diplomatic initiatives on the table in part because it is always possible the other side might be willing to work with it. I believe there is also value in putting diplomatic initiatives out there even if the other side does not accept them, because it helps you manage your domestic and international audiences.

So you are talking about public diplomatic initiatives.

Yes. I believe any initiative ought to be public. We ought to put forward a tough but reasonable position, one that sends a message to the Iranian public that we are not out to humiliate Iran. This makes it harder for the regime to say no. And it should be public, so that U.S. citizens and the international community see it as reasonable, so that if one day we find ourselves in war with Iran, it is clear that Iran had a chance to accept something reasonable and rejected it. I always believe it is better if you are forced to go into war to do it against the backdrop of where the other side is seen as largely responsible for bringing things to that point.

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