Nonproliferation
Commentary

Common Sense on Iran

in Program

By Barry Blechman – I recently visited 12 American cities – from Anchorage to Colorado
Springs to Charleston – to discuss Iran and the effort to stop its
nuclear weapons program. I may not have drawn crowds as large as Lady
Gaga’s, but I did engage thousands of citizens directly or through local
media. It was refreshing to be able to discuss the issue free from the
political implications that color similar Washington conversations.
Americans, I discovered, have a lot more common sense about our options
than many Washington politicians.

In a February 2011 Gallup poll, 25 percent of the respondents named
Iran spontaneously as “the United States’ greatest enemy today” – more
than any other state. Americans also believe overwhelmingly that Iran is
seeking to acquire nuclear weapons; indeed, many Americans believe
Tehran already has them. This is not surprising, given that officials
have been predicting an imminent Iranian bomb ever since Israel’s
then-foreign minister Shimon Peres warned in 1992 that Iran, “would be
armed with a nuclear bomb by 1999.” It was reassuring to my audiences to
learn that the US and Israeli governments now agree that Iran is
unlikely to have a weapon before 2015.

When given a choice of policy options to deal with Iran, about 20
percent of Americans choose military intervention while, typically, 50
percent or more prefer economic sanctions or diplomacy, or a combination
of the two. These figures, which have been fairly consistent for the
past five years, fit well with my conversations.

The need to end
Iran’s nuclear program through preemptive air strikes may be a
crowd-pleasing line for some politicians, but even a couple of minutes
spent contemplating the level of force required and the likely
consequences left my audiences shaking their heads in opposition. Most
experts believe that any attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear
infrastructure would also have to destroy as much of Iran’s armed forces
as possible, so as to reduce the expected retaliation. Even then, Iran
would have no shortage of ways to strike back. My audiences,
particularly those with some military experience, had little enthusiasm
for policy options that would risk US involvement in yet another war in
the Middle East.

The Americans I spoke with overwhelmingly
preferred economic sanctions.  They see them as punishing Iran for its
intransigence and subterfuges, but without the risks suggested by
military operations. Some would like to see the sanctions tightened,
reflecting only limited knowledge about the effects of the existing
ones.

For example, few knew that all the Western oil companies
and most financial institutions have pulled out of Iran, leaving
Tehran’s plans to develop the country’s oil and gas resources in
shambles. Iran’s bleak economic future under sanctions is one reason for
the internal conflict we are now witnessing among Iran’s elites – with
some parties pressing for measures to end the country’s growing
isolation.

Sabotage and other covert operations are also popular
options with Americans, triggering Hollywood-inspired images of
omnipotent, black-suited security agents. The damage imposed by the
Stuxnet worm inspired particular admiration, as did the introduction of
defective materials through Iran’s dealings in the black market. My
audiences were less enthusiastic about the assassination of scientists –
a third dirty trick that seems to have been played by some nation’s
clandestine service.

My audiences also were skeptical about
prospects for a diplomatic solution that satisfied international
concerns that Iran’s nuclear activities were not masking a capability to
rapidly arm itself and that Iran’s demand to develop nuclear power for
peaceful purposes, as is its right under the Nonproliferation Treaty,
would not be abused.

I believe and argued that such an agreement
can be described, and might be negotiable if political circumstances
align in Washington and Tehran, but my audiences were largely
unconvinced. In part, this lack of faith in diplomacy represents
distrust of the Iranians. In greater part, though, skepticism about the
possibility of a negotiated solution reflects fatalism about nuclear
proliferation generally, and about Iran’s program in particular.

So,
if Americans rule out a new war in the Middle East, but rate the odds
of stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through sanctions/covert
ops/diplomacy as long, where does that leave us?

It is still
possible that Iran will decide to stop short of a weapons capability and
provide reassurances to the international community in order to end its
political isolation and restart its economic development. The outcome
of this internal and escalating political conflict among Iran’s elites
will determine whether this possibility becomes reality. Key to such an
outcome is our recognition of Iran’s right to nuclear energy for
peaceful purposes, including the enrichment of uranium.

Unfortunately,
in the short-term, a diplomatic solution is unlikely due to the
politics in Washington and in Tehran.  Compromise is currently
considered political suicide in both capitals. As demonstrated by the
Iranian Green Movement in 2009, however, and more recently in so many
other countries in the region, it is evident that the democratic values
championed by Americans are shared by tens of millions throughout the
Middle East. In the long-term, this shared desire for personal freedoms,
responsive governments, and individual opportunity offers the greatest
hope for the healing of past scars and the eventual peaceful resolution
of the real differences between us.


This analysis first appeared in the Hill at: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/171525-common-sense-on-iran

Photo credit: David Shankbone: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mahmoud_Ahmadinejad_at_the_United_Nations_2008_12.jpg

 

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