Iran’s leadership has the “pedal to the metal” on its nuclear policy. Tehran’s aggressive pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle is shaking Western leaders and markets to the core. On occasion, Tehran can still stun and surprise the West, as with its hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s missive to George Bush about how to resolve issues of concern. Given its unpredictable nature, it is time to look within the Persian mirror and discern what camps and debates exist within the regime around the nuclear policy. What are the disagreements, and what do they mean for US policy?
Despite his much-reported letter to Bush, the primary proponents of the nuclear breakout are Ahmadinejad and his hard-line allies in the security services, particularly the Revolutionary Guards. For the hard-liners the nuclear program is considered in isolation, devoid of competing interests. The most defining experience for Iran’s aggrieved reactionaries is the war with Iraq. The international community’s indifference to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons and the Western countries’ provision of ample assistance to Iraq’s war machine continues to animate Iran’s reactionaries. An ideological perspective molded by the war has led the hard-liners to not just disregard global opinion and international treaties, but to perceive that the ultimate objective of the United States remains the change of the Iranian regime.
“The West opposed the nature of the Islamic rule. If we solve [nuclear standoff], then they will bring up human rights. If we solve that, they will bring up animal rights,” implored Ahmadinejad. A nuclear-armed Iran can best safeguard its territorial integrity, provide for regime security, and negate America’s nefarious plots. Given the existential value of the bomb, Iran should be prepared to tolerate international sanctions, rebukes, and even military strikes on its path of nuclear self-sufficiency.
The more pragmatic elements within the theocratic regime led by the powerful head of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashami Rafsanjani stress that Iran’s integration into the international order and the global economy mandates accepting certain restrictions on the nuclear program. The proponents of this strategy do not call for dismantling the nuclear edifice but for the gradual development of the program under the flexible guidelines of the NPT. Given Iran’s long-term commitment to the NPT and the prevailing international scrutiny, a provocative policy could invite multilateral sanctions and lead Iran’s valuable commercial partners to embracing America’s sanctions policy. The model for the more cautious conservatives is India prior to its detonation of the bomb. A country that develops an advance nuclear infrastructure but refrains from actually constructing the bomb could garner the strategic benefits of a presumed nuclear status yet be rewarded by the international community for its seeming restraint. In such a scenario, Iran sustains its trade relations, asserts it claims in a region cowed by its nuclear capacity, yet isolates an America whose claims of Iranian belligerence will have diminished currency.
Although it is customary in Washington’s corridors of power to caustically dismiss the reformers, they do play a role in the nuclear deliberations. Given their prominence in the political landscape, ties to clerical powerbrokers, and presence in the critical bureaucracies, their perspective cannot be easily disregarded. For the reformers, the challenge today remains constructing a pluralistic order that accommodates both Islamic injunctions and democratic values. As such, an international crisis that creates political tensions, leads to internal crackdowns, and consolidates the power of the hard-liners riding a nationalistic wave is something to be avoided. Given such potentially dire realities, the reformers have been the most vocal proponents of accommodating the demands of the international community, however onerous.
Muhammad Reza Khatami, the head of the largest reformist party, the Islamic Participation Front, has called for “suspension of uranium activities and negotiations with the aim of fostering trust and having international oversight.” This point of view may not prevail, but its persistent expression has had a restraining impact on the regime.
The critical question then becomes how can Washington exploit such fissures and keep Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold and actually assembling a weapon. It is important to stress that a relentless policy of pressure is only strengthening the hard-liners who insist that the only manner the encroaching American threat can be disarmed is through the possession of the strategic weapon. Nor are the existing attempts to mobilize the Security Council likely to work as divisions among the great powers is only buttressing Iranian resolve and demystifying the once-impressive threat of UN sanctions.
In the end, as distasteful as it maybe, Washington has no option but to engage in a direct give and take with the Iranian regime. A generous American offer of economic concessions and security dialogue may just tip the scales in favor of pragmatists inclined to arrest Iran’s drive toward nuclear arms. Should this approach fail, the United States can return to its allies and coalitions of the willing with a credible claim that it has exhausted all diplomatic options and it is time for a viable, multilateral policy of pressure.
Clifford Kupchan is a director at Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.