The United Nations Security Council recently sent Iran a package of incentives to encourage that nation to halt its nuclear program. The proposals included selling Iran light-water nuclear technology, civilian aircraft, and spare parts. Although the United States participated in this initiative and has agreed to directly meet with the Iranians on the nuclear issue both positive developments it may need to go further if there is to be any hope that Iran will arrest its nuclear activities.
The Bush administration alleges that Iran is secretly working on a nuclear weapons program in violation of its commitment not to do so under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran denies this accusation and claims its right under that same treaty to pursue peaceful nuclear energy. After the U.S. intelligence failure on Iraq’s alleged, but nonexistent, nuclear program, the United States and the world should not be so cocksure that Iran’s nuclear program has a military purpose. In fact, although the International Atomic Energy Agency has concerns about the Iranian nuclear program, it has so far found no evidence that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The Iranians may not have yet decided to "weaponize" their program.
Israeli saber-rattling and the blundering U.S. invasion of Iraq, which scared the Iranians into thinking that they might be next on the U.S. hit list, would logically lead Iran to seek nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible to restrain those powers’ actions. But Iran also may have an incentive not to weaponize its nuclear program. Iran is the 800-pound gorilla in the Persian Gulf region. If it got nuclear weapons, this might spur Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other neighboring states to go down that route. Such developments would essentially nullify Iran’s advantage.
So perhaps Iran can be convinced either not to take the nuclear route or to give up any weapons program that it has already started. But giving Iran negative incentives is likely to be costly to the United States. Military options are all likely to be counterproductive. The invasion of Iran much larger, more populous, and more rugged than Iraq would make the Mesopotamian quagmire look tame. Air strikes would probably fail to knock out Iran’s nuclear program, because U.S. intelligence is likely to be imperfect (to say the least) on the location of all the facilities. Such attacks would merely make Iran work overtime to get nuclear weapons. Also, Iran could retaliate by urging Shi’ite militias in Iraq to attack U.S. troops, turning loose the Hezbollah terror group on U.S. targets around the world, or interdicting Western oil shipments that are transported through the Strait of Hormuz.
Economic sanctions, another negative incentive that has received a lukewarm reaction from Security Council members China and Russia, are likely to be almost as counterproductive. Like military action, they will merely cause the demographic bulge of more pro-Western Iranian youth to rally around the theocratic regime. The Iranian government can also redirect the hurt of sanctions onto those in Iranian society who are least able to bear them. The economic effects of sanctions usually dissipate over time as cheating becomes lucrative for foreign companies and nations. Sanctions are often sold as an alternative to war, but can often lead to war for example, the first Gulf War in 1991 and the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.
Thus, positive incentives are the best to have any chance of persuading Iran that it doesn’t need nuclear weapons. A more restrained U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf area (including a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq) and a U.S. security guarantee for Iran are the key positive incentives that are missing from the UN Security Council’s batch of proposals. Because the radical groups that Iran supports do not focus their attacks on U.S. targets, the United States can afford to make such a guarantee. Also, if Iran did eventually obtain nuclear weapons, a smaller U.S. footprint in the Persian Gulf would make it far less likely that the Iranians would come into conflict with the United States and use them to attack the faraway U.S. territory. The United States should also offer to fully normalize U.S.-Iranian relations including cultural, political, and economic ties much as it did with Libya, and seek to stem nuclear weapons proliferation regionally, which would include that of Israel.
At this late date, after numerous U.S. policy blunders, even these added incentives may not discourage Iran from getting nuclear weapons. In that case, the United States may have to live with a nuclear Iran. Given the distance between the two nations, the Europeans and Iran’s neighbors should be more worried about this development than should the United States.