The latest tussle over red lines and deadlines on Iran’s nuclear program obscures some of the genuine dilemmas now confronting the international community.
For a long time, the major powers had hoped that imposing strenuous sanctions on Iran could produce an interlocutor willing to negotiate honestly and to adhere to an exacting arms control agreement. But time may no longer permit the patient exercise of coercive diplomacy.
To temper Iran’s nuclear ambitions we may need not one strategy but two. The immediate challenge is to obtain an agreement that imposes some limits on Iran’s more disturbing proliferation activities. However, this cannot be the end of the story, but an interim step to provide time for a strategy that broadens Tehran’s ruling coalition and injects some moderate voices into its deliberations.
It is important to note that the Islamic Republic has persistently violated all aspects of its nonproliferation commitments. Both of Iran’s known enrichment installations began as surreptitious plants that were later discovered by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Iranian regime continues to operate and expand these facilities in violation of six United Nations Security Council resolutions that call for their suspension. Tehran has refused the I.A.E.A.’s requests for information on previous weaponization activities or to grant access to its scientists and many of its facilities. Given this history, one can count on Tehran to similarly violate any agreement that it may be compelled to sign. For the Islamic Republic, as currently constituted, treaties are but diversions on its way to greater nuclear empowerment.
The international community should adopt a similar outlook in negotiating with Iran. As a first step, the focus of the major powers should be an agreement that may not necessarily address all of their concerns but puts some restrains on Iran’s nuclear surge. An attempt to curtail Iran’s higher grade enrichment activities, ship out some of its stockpile and close the Fordow facility would not end Iran’s nuclear conundrum, but it would at least hamper its goal of getting the bomb.
Given Iran’s nuclear progress, sabotage and sanctions may no longer be enough to slow the program; an agreement, however deficient, may be the only way to achieve this goal. The challenge would be to relinquish as little as possible of the sanctions regime to obtain such an accord.
Once an interim deal is in place, the United States must take the lead in devising a coercive strategy to change the parameters of Iran’s domestic politics. A strategy of concerted pressure would seek to exploit all of Iran’s liabilities. The existing efforts to stress Iran’s economy would be complemented by an attempt to make common cause with the struggling opposition.
The purpose of this policy would be to so weaken the Islamist regime that it would be forced to abandon its objectionable policies abroad and negotiate a new national compact with the opposition at home. In essence, this policy would compel the Islamic Republic to make painful concessions in order to preserve its power. The international community would not be creating new realities, but exploiting and accelerating existing trends.
Under such intensified pressures, Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, could acquiesce and negotiate with the opposition. There are members of the Iranian elite who appreciate the devastating cost of Iran’s intransigence and want a different approach to the international community. The problem is that these people have been pushed to the margins. If Khamenei senses that his grip on power is slipping, he might broaden his government to include opposition figures who would inject a measure of pragmatism and moderation into the system.
The history of proliferation suggests that regimes under stress do negotiate arms control treaties: Both the Soviet Union and North Korea signed many such agreements. But history also suggests that without a change of attitude, these compacts promised much but delivered little. Once there is a new outlook — as there was in the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power — then it is possible to craft durable arms limitation agreements.
As with the Soviet Union, the United States will make genuine progress with Iran only when moderate leaders assume greater control of the state. An interim accord may provide time, but that time must be used to broaden the contours of Iran’s political system.
First published in New York Times.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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