By Hooshang Amirahmadi and Shahir Shahidsaless
The US official position is that Iran’s nuclear program is geared toward developing “military capability.” To stop Iran, the Obama Administration has committed itself to a ‘dual-track policy of applying pressure in pursuit of constructive engagement, and a negotiated solution.’ The pressure includes economic sanctions, political isolation, covert operations, and threat of war.
Washington believes, or hopes at the least, that this pressure approach is working and will soon make Iran change behavior or else the policy will lead to change of its Islamic regime. The US is also basing its hopes on the European cooperation against Iran, the popular opposition to the regime, and the growing domestic political chasm within the top leadership of the Islamic Republic.
While the US pressure approach is causing serious harms to the Islamic regime, and the domestic political chasm is real, the policy will fail to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear enrichment program, and it cannot cause regime change. Worst yet, the dual track policy will in its conclusion lead to an unwanted war and make Iran build nuclear weapons. These eventualities will have unimaginable consequences.
Contrary to the popular view, Tehran’s resistance to calls for a compromise solution is not due to its love for uranium enrichment or desire to build bombs. Under the same Supreme Leader, Iran suspended enrichment in 2003, accepted the swap deal that Brazil and Turkey negotiated, allowed snap and unexpected inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and has not exited the Nonproliferation Treaty.
Iran’s intransigence is not also due to a lack of cost-benefit analysis or ideological dogmatism. One glaring example is Iran’s cooperation with the U.S. over the war against the Taliban and the formation of the Karzai government. Oddly, only a few weeks later President Bush named Iran as part of an “axis of evil.” Iran has also stood on the sideline of wars against Muslims in the Middle East, Europe and Russia.
The real reason for Iran’s stubbornness is the dual-track policy itself. Before it is a solution, the policy is a problem, if not the problem. Specifically, the policy is based on a profound misunderstanding of the Iranian society, and is insensitive to its culture and politics. Significantly, the policy is oblivious to Iran’s national pride, sense of self-respect, resistance to injustice, mistrust of the US, and fear of regime change.
National pride is a major driving force of Iran’s nuclear program and the main reason for the Islamic regime’s resistance to demands for its suspension. Indeed, the nuclear program is often equated to the oil nationalization in 1950s. It is no wonder that the RAND Corporation should find that over 90 percent of Iranians, including those who oppose the Islamic regime, support their nuclear enrichment program.
Coupled with pride is self-respect; together, they form the basis for Iranian national identity. Leaders of the Islamic Republic have frequently condemned the dual-track policy and the ‘tone’ of American officials as ‘disrespectful and derogatory.’ They are particularly annoyed by the terms ‘carrot and stick’ as they are applied to donkey in Iran. In words of the Supreme Leader, ‘Our nation hates threat and enticement’.
Mistrust plays even a more powerful role in US-Iran conflict. The roots of the mistrust go back to the 1953 CIA-assisted coup against Mohammad Mosadeq, the Iranian democratic prime minister. It was because of mistrust that the Supreme Leader rejected President Obama’s 2009 televised message for ‘a new beginning.’ He has described Obama’s ‘stretched hand’ as having ‘a velvet glove on top’ with a ‘cast iron inside.’
Tehran’s fear of regime security is another potent obstacle. While the US policy is not aimed at overthrowing the regime in Iran, it has been careless in distinguishing its rightful support for human rights and democracy in Iran from the calls for regime change that has been voiced by so many quarters in the Western world. American refusal to offer the Islamic Republic security guarantees is another “proof” for Tehran that the US is after regime change.
The Iranian Shia culture of resistance and pressure is another important obstacle to a negotiated settlement of US-Iran dispute over the nuclear matter. Thus, according to the Supreme Leader, ‘under bullying and intimidation,’ the way to success is to ‘not retreat from the enemy, not even one step’ as that would open the door for more coercion and demand of concessions by the US leading to the regime’s collapse.
The U.S. policy toward Iran, particularly with respect to the nuclear dispute, almost unreservedly discounts the pervasive role of these cultural and political norms. They are oblivious to the fact that the Iranian political leaders, the Supreme Leader in particular, would incur a high cost, would be even accused of selling out Iran’s dignity, if they were to back down from the nuclear issue under duress.
Advocates of the dual-track policy might argue that, regardless, under tightening sanctions, once the Islamic regime’s survival is threatened, the leadership would have no choice but to surrender. This argument disregards serious risks. First, an endangered regime would understandably take retaliatory actions against the US and its allies in the region. This would lead to a war that, in Secretary Panetta’s words, ‘we would regret.’
Second, a war against Iran that does not end its Islamic regime will lead to an Iran with nuclear bombs even if the US were to engage it in a ‘permanent war.’ The chance that the Islamic regime will collapse under a war is nil given the Iranian patriotism, lack of a viable alternative to the regime, and the likelihood that the regime would eliminate most opposition leaders and activists, the ‘Fifth Column,’ in the very start of the war.
Third, for the sanctions to threateningly weaken the government, time is needed. Under an open-ended sanctions and destabilization regime, Iran will find enough time to build nuclear arms if indeed it intends to do so. Besides, protracted ‘crippling sanctions’ can create a moral dilemma and public diplomacy fiasco as they will mostly hurt the same Iranian people whom the US claims to support against the authoritarian Islamic regime.
Finally, as was the case with Iraq, sanctions may at the end fail to make the Islamic Republic surrender. Under this condition, pressures will build over time and patience for a lengthy diplomatic solution will wane. A war then can become the only option to overcome the deadlock. As Zbigniew Brzezinski has put it, ’the more you lean towards compulsion, the more the choice become war if it doesn’t work.’
Any of these possibilities would signal the failure of the US policy of ‘applying pressure in pursuit of constructive engagement’ and a ‘negotiated solution.’ If the US wants a diplomatic settlement of the nuclear dispute with Iran, it must abandon its delusion that the dual track approach will work, and adjust its current policy by adopting a realistic approach that is more sensitive to the Iranian cultural norms and political realities.
First, the US must abandon the language of threat and intimidation, replacing it with a respectful tone; second, the US must alleviate Tehran’s fear of regime change by abandoning the ‘all-options-are-on-the-table’ mantra; and third, the US must build trust with Iran by supporting a nuclear-free Middle East, a move that can bring Israel and Iran into an indirect, if not direct, overdue dialogue.
Finally, the US must abandon its delusion that it has a zero-enrichment option with Iran. Instead, it must focus on averting Iran from producing bomb-grade uranium. The most realistic form of achieving this outcome is intrusive monitoring of Iran’s nuclear sites through the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. Iran will accept this condition, and it may even accept a partial suspension as long as the perceived ‘bullying’ policy is abandoned.