Can We Stop Iran From Going Nuclear?

March 20, 2009

Dan Drezner says no:

“…the most pragmatic thing for the United States to do is to expect nothing fruitful to come from negotiations with Iran — and to (nonviolently) prepare for the contingency of a nuclear Iran.

A question to my realist colleagues here at FP — why on God’s green earth would Iran ever accede to an agreement whereby it gives up any autonomy in its nuclear program?”

Steve Walt accepts Drezner’s challenge. He thinks, though, that while it’s possible to convince Iran not to develop nuclear weapons, we’re going to have to accept the Iranian uranium enrichment program:

“…at this point I don’t think it is possible to persuade Iran to give up full control of the nuclear fuel cycle. They’ve committed a lot of money and prestige to acquiring this capacity, the program is popular domestically, and it is legal within the confines of the NPT. So if our bottom line is for them to abandon enrichment, etc., we’re almost certainly going to fail.

Our goal, instead, should be to convince Iran that it is better off not developing nuclear weapons, because that’s the issue we really care about. This means not enriching uranium to weapons grade, not reprocessing spent reactor fuel to extract bomb-making material, and not building or testing an actual device. Obviously, Iran would have to agree to sufficiently thorough inspections to ensure compliance.

First and foremost, the United States has to take the threat of military force and regime change off the table. Why? Because that’s the main reason why Iran might like a nuclear deterrent in the first place. From Tehran’s perspective, they have three nuclear powers in their neighborhood (Pakistan, India, and Israel), and U.S. troops on two sides (in Iraq and Afghanistan). U.S. naval forces patrol the Iranian Sea and Persian Gulf, and it is the stated policy of the U.S. government — the world’s strongest military power — to seek the removal of the current Iranian regime. Indeed, we are reportedly engaged in various covert operations there already. Iranians can see that Saddam Hussein is dead and buried but Kim Jong Il is not, and they know one of the reasons why.”

I’m skeptical of Walt’s proposal; I’m not sure it’s workable to have Iran essentially a screwdriver’s turn away from a bomb, which is what his plan would entail. I’m also not as pessimistic as Drezner (although I do harbor fears that he may be right). I still have hope that we can persuade Iran to forego even its civilian enrichment program. But I think Walt is 100% right in that the key is addressing Iran security problems, something that seems to be remarkably absent from the mainstream media’s discussion of this issue.

I also strongly agree with Walt on this point:

“…if diplomacy doesn’t succeed, the United States and its allies in the region can always fall back on deterrence. By saying that the United States should “non-violently” prepare for an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, I take it that Drezner recognizes that preventive war won’t solve this problem and could easily make a lot of other problems worse. We’ve deterred bigger and tougher adversaries in the past, and while I’d strongly prefer that Iran decide not to become a nuclear weapons state, I’m not going to panic if it does cross that line at some point down the road. And neither should anyone else.”

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