As the Bush administration proceeds with the arduous task of seeking Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, one of the remaining members of the "axis of evil" is edging closer to a nuclear option. The recent revelation of sophisticated uranium enrichment facilities in Natanz, Iran -- along with the clerical regime's expressed commitment to further its nuclear program -- has raised understandable alarm in Washington. Yet despite America's dire assessment of Iran's intentions, there is in fact a subtle debate in Tehran regarding the wisdom of crossing the nuclear threshold. A more imaginative U.S. policy could still influence the outcome of this debate, tipping the scales in favor of those who seek to remain in the confines of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran's nuclear calculations are derived not from irrational designs but rather from a judicious attempt to create a viable deterrent capability against a range of regional threats. For the past two decades, Saddam Hussein's Iraq determined Iran's defense priorities, propelling Tehran toward a nuclear option as a means of deterring a dictator who had already proved willing to unleash weapons of mass destruction against Iranian cities.
Given Hussein's demise, America has emerged as Iran's foremost strategic quandary. The Bush Doctrine, which pledges the preemptive use of force as a tool of counter-proliferation, along with the substantial growth in American power along Iran's periphery, has intensified Tehran's fears that the Islamic Republic will be the next U.S. target. Borrowing a page from the North Korean playbook, Iran is now brandishing its nuclear program to strengthen its leverage vis— vis the American colossus.
It is significant that, within a government riven by intense factional disputes, Iranian policymakers across the political spectrum agree on the necessity of maintaining a nuclear program. Advocates propound the existential threats surrounding Iran. For reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh, the rationale for a nuclear capability is self-evident. "It's basically a matter of equilibrium. If I don't have them, I don't have security," Tajzadeh has said. He has been echoed by conservative commentator Amir Mohebian, who castigated U.S. nonproliferation policy: "The Americans say, in order to preserve the peace for my children, I should have nuclear weapons and you shouldn't have them."
Still, despite the consensus on retaining all options, Tehran has not yet made the decision to cross the nuclear threshold. A hushed yet important debate is underway within the corridors of the clerical estate. Many influential Iranians recognize that crossing the threshold would only exacerbate Iran's strategic vulnerabilities. They argue that acquisition of nuclear weapons could erode Iran's hard-won rapprochement with its Persian Gulf neighbors and lead those states to consolidate their ties with the United States. Ironically, Iran's nuclear weapons could provide the pretext for further projection of U.S. power in the region. As the influential journal Farda observed, "Deploying such weapons cannot solve any problems for Iran; it will only add to our problems." Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has similarly deprecated the regional penchant toward proliferation, noting, "This is one genie that was much better to have stayed in the bottle."
Given that Iran's nuclear ambitions stem from the perception of threat from the United States, the most effective U.S. approach to defuse yet another proliferation crisis would be to try to diminish Iran's strategic anxieties. The cause of Iran's nuclear proponents would be significantly weakened if the United States included Iran's government in its regional deliberations on the future of Iraq and engaged in confidence-building measures to assure Tehran that its legitimate interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia would be taken into consideration. Similarly, the prospect that abandonment of its nuclear designs could lead to the resumption of commercial relations between Iran and the United States would provide a powerful motivation.
While holding out offers of cooperation, the international community should make clear to Iran that a nuclear breakthrough would trigger the imposition of multilateral sanctions, further exacerbating Tehran's economic and security problems. For this strategy to succeed, Washington will require the cooperation of its allies, particularly "old Europe." The European Union and Russia should be pressed not just to exercise more stringent export controls but also to impress upon Tehran that crossing the nuclear threshold will lead to the suspension of economic ties. The Persian Gulf states should also be prepared to terminate their detente toward Tehran if it goes nuclear.
Shrill rhetoric about an "axis of evil" and presidential doctrines granting America the right to militarily intervene wherever it perceives a problem are unlikely to stem the tide of proliferation in the Middle East or elsewhere. A more clever diplomacy of integrating Iran into the regional security architecture and global economy would provide Tehran with an incentive to adhere to its nonproliferation commitments.
The writer is a professor and director of studies at the Near East and South Asia Center at the National Defense University. The views here are his own.