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Ugly Options on Iran

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
April 6, 2006

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The United States and its European allies insist they are committed to a negotiated solution (AP) aimed at ending Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Yet as Brookings Institution Mideast expert Kenneth Pollack said in a CFR symposium, Iran’s “great nightmare” is a common EU-U.S. front on economic sanctions that would force Iranian leaders to debate whether a nuclear program was worth the price. "What the Iranian people will see is two paths: one where they cling to their weapons and their terrorism, and as a result their economy is crippled and they are cut off from the rest of the world; or they can give up these two things, which quite frankly really aren’t important to most Iranians, and instead have a much better world where they’re integrated with the global community, their economy is healthy and their lives are much better," Pollack says.

But panelist Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute dismissed economic moves, saying Iran's cleric are motivated primarily by ideology. The United States, he says, must be prepared to move to a state of war with Iran to deny its nuclear ambitions. Both of them agreed that talk of a "limited air strike" aimed at disabling Iranian nuclear facilities is misleading. "So the whole concept and the debate of a preventive strike is almost a distorting concept, something I take away from this conversation because again, you’ve got to assume Iranian response. You’ve got to assume you’re not going to therefore let that response simply sit unresponded to in turn. So very quickly, a limited military operation becomes a relatively unlimited military operation."

In a separate CFR panel exploring Iranian motivations, Karim Sadjadpour of the International Crisis Group said there are intense debates among Iranian elites over how to end the crisis. He said a prevailing perception in Iran was that any bow to international pressure will be a show of weakness and only invite further pressure. There are also many fissures within Iran's leadership on foreign policy, as this CFR Background Q&A by Lionel Beehner points out.

As the diplomacy goes on, the gulf appears to be as wide as ever between Western capitals and Tehran. Iran rejects a recent Security Council statement calling for it to suspend enrichment activities and has been holding war games in the Persian Gulf and testing new types of missiles. But Iran’s UN ambassador, Javad Zarif, insists in a New York Times op-ed that Iran is committed to only peaceful uses of nuclear power.

Amid the policy debates, some nonproliferation experts, including UN nuclear chief Mohammed ElBaradei are urging the West to ratchet down the crisis talk. A new report by the Institute for Science and International Security also calls for a recommitment to a diplomatic solution and a full airing of available intelligence on Iran. The report lays out a worse-case scenario (PDF) in which Iran is not likely to have enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon until 2009.  Carnegie's Joseph Cirincione tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman that some in the Bush administraton "have already made up their minds" on striking Iran, and that official statements are "very reminiscent of the coordinated campaign that we saw before the Iraq war." The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman (D-CA) said at a recent CFR meeting she was “skeptical” of the intelligence on Iran’s nuclear capacity.

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