The lead essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs starts off with “The Islamic Republic of Iran is determined to become the world’s tenth nuclear power”. It goes on from there to sketch out US options for containment, barely dwelling on the current arguments about whether sanctions will work, whether some military option should be used—it is a planning paper for a post-nuclear Iran. The authors take the view that Iran can be contained that if the US plays its cards right it doesn’t have to change the strategic equation in the middle east.
I don’t want to paraphrase all the author’s arguments, but a couple of points. Firstly, I find it a strange balancing act for the US to be sending senior foreign policy officials to the Gulf nations, who are also fearful of a nuclear Iran. On the one hand, we are trying to tell these “allies”, where we have military bases and from which we currently receive vital oil supplies, that we will protect them. Iran loves to incite these countries’ restive Shiite populations and Iran, similar to Japan before in the first part of the 20th century, sees itself as a liberator of Muslims in the region from western imperialism. But in the US there is a strong movement to move away from oil, to decouple ourselves from these regimes, so I would imagine leadership in those countries are complaining about mixed messages. I, for one, am tired of propping up these feckless Gulf states where the locals do no work and import south Asians to do everything while they live off their labor and oil while quietly financing terrorist activity.
It’s also hard to argue with Iran’s logic for acquiring nuclear arms. Surrounded on both sides by US forces (Iraq and Afghanistan) and mindful that non-nuclear Iraq was invaded and nuclear North Korea still hasn’t been, the Mullahs see the bomb as part of a guarantee of their continued rule. Their rhetoric and recent actions seem to almost invite a military strike against them, which they are betting will united a fractious country behind them.
I go back and forth thinking about this, and allowing Iran to go nuclear is a terrible scenario. The authors of the FP essay do a good job of laying out all the awful things that could result from Iran getting the bomb. But at the moment I think continued efforts at engagement, targeted sanctions, and assurances for our allies in the region (none more than Israel, who should receive an explicit guarantee of the US’s support in the form of being put formally under the US nuclear umbrella) should be the way to go. There is a feisty opposition movement in Iran that needs time to grow—Iranians, a huge portion of whom are young, are sick of the Mullahs and will hopefully in the near term change their own government.