Nuclear Iran

The Atlantic recently asked a group of foreign-policy authorities about Iran’s nuclear quest. Special extended Web version

Do you believe there is any set of incentives and economic sanctions that could persuade Iran to give up its quest for nuclear weapons?

“Yes. Economic pressure can have a major impact on Tehran’s calculations, given the demands of a young population. Such pressure would have to include a ban on investment in the energy sector, and possibly an oil embargo, to have the desired effect. And it would have to be coupled to a clear economic and diplomatic rewards to provide the right incentives.”

“Yes, sort of—that is, I think they would be prepared to suspend [their nuclear program], but hold on to enough capabilities to hedge against unfavorable developments and restart it.”

“Yes. Iran is likely to insist on keeping a 'research' program that preserves a small-scale, low-grade enrichment capability. But the right package can forestall Tehran's quest for nuclear weapons.”

“If the question is to persuade Iran to permanently abandon their quest, the answer is no. If the question is to persuade Iran [not to seek] nuclear weapons capability now (but with a capacity to move in that direction in the future), I think the answer is yes.”

“A grand bargain with the United States might persuade Tehran to stop just short of building the bomb. But neither [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad nor the mullahs will sign any deal that requires Iran to shut down its nuclear program. And any grand bargain will require Washington to recognize Tehran as a major regional player.”

“Yes. There is a fifty percent chance that a grand bargain that includes all carrots and sticks could persuade to postpone—not give up—[their nuclear program] for a period, say 5 years—after which [it will be] another issue.”

“Yes, but I think the important part of a package would be incentives, including some form of security guarantees. I doubt that the threat of economic sanctions is going to be all that much of a motivating force for the Iranian leaders.  The rest of the world is unlikely to be able to boycott Iranian oil with much effect.”

“Give up? No. Postpone or delay? Yes. While a few countries, [having] once embarked on the quest for nuclear weapons, have indeed decided to abandon that quest when they concluded it was not in their interests. This certainly includes Sweden, South Africa and Libya. Others have decided that circumstances made it in their present interest to delay or postpone an effort, but not to forsake forever such a quest. These countries, Japan, Brazil and a few others, have kept the option available, usually under the guise of a peaceful nuclear power program. Iran, at best, can be moved to this second category of states.”

“Yes or no answers are difficult for these questions. My 'Yes' answer for this question is very tentative. An absolutely solid set of highly restrictive economic sanctions applied by all, or nearly all, nations would over time force Iran to its knees. But it is highly unlikely that such sanctions would ever be universally agreed or applied. The threat of military action could work if it came from an alliance of nations including the US, the UK, France, Germany, and Russia (or most of the above). But the threat would have to be credible, and used if necessary. Again, the ability to put such an alliance together is nil—at least at this time.”

“No. However, a set of very strong incentives could lead Iran to slow the program considerably to avoid further provocations. Tehran would still seek nuclear weapons, but the problem would be put off for a while.”

“No, nothing to give up its quest but they may be willing to suspend indefinitely or to maintain a highly inspected and monitored research capability.”

“No, not with this regime.”

“No. I don't believe the Europeans would make sanctions credible enough to convince the Iranians that there's really an 'or else' out there.”

“No. Iran has too much invested in its nuclear program. Even if, like North Korea, it signed an accord, it would violate it.”

“Yes. (I note, however, that you have 'loaded the question' by assuming that Iran is on a 'quest for nuclear weapons'. There are other possible explanations for what is going on, including prestige, regional influence, a belief in the 'right' to be scientifically advanced, and getting our goat—although you may indeed be right. Making that assumption at this point necessarily pushes analysis in particular directions). The incentives? In addition to the prospect of a lifting of all sanctions and re-admission into the league of civilized nations, incentives should focus on a U.S. offer of security guarantees for Iranian good behavior, the latter defined in terms of a) no bomb; 2) open inspections; and 3) no more support for Hezbollah or other terrorist groups. The fact that we will not make such an offer (and ignored credible Iranian feelers on a 'grand bargain' in 2003—an event only marginally covered in the US press and dismissed out of hand by the Administration) has dismayed the Europeans, who have set as a key goal getting us to make this offer. Would it work? Who can tell until we try; and if it does not, then we will be better able to build genuine support among the Europeans for sanctions, etc. Indeed, the fact that we will not put the security issue on the table only plays into the hands of those in the Iranian leadership who would like to get the bomb, if only for deterrence purposes. Economic sanctions? That would just arm those in Teheran who would like Iran to thumb its nose at the West and go hell-bent for a bomb.”

If Iran were to build nuclear weapons, do you think it would likely do any of the following:
A. Support terrorism more aggressively, from behind a nuclear shield, with the goal of further spreading the Islamic revolution?
58% Yes
42% No

“No. Iran’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons is driven principally by a defensive need to deter attack and secondarily by the desire to be recognized as a major regional power.”

“No. I think they will make that calculation whether or not they have nuclear weapons.”

“No. They are already supporters of terrorism. Possession of nuclear weapons is unlikely to give them an added ability to do so.”

“Doubtful, that is, 'no.' The Islamic Revolution is pretty much played out, and you don't spread revolution through the barrel of a (nuclear) gun. It doesn't work. And opponents can use counter techniques that stay below the level at which an Iranian bomb could rationally be employed.”

“We need to find them an excuse to NOT pursue nuclear weapons [using] diplomatic, security, economic, and energy incentives!”

“Yes. However, Iran's goals would range from reducing U.S. influence to engaging in a strategic rivalry with Saudi Arabia. Spreading the revolution would be one goal of many, and not the most important one.”

B. Seek to drive up oil prices by bullying other OPEC members, closing the Strait of Hormuz, or taking other actions for its economic gain?
65% No
35% Yes

“No. They are unlikely to be able to 'bully' enough other OPEC members to have significant influence on oil prices.”

“No. I don't think nuclear weapons will change their basic economic behavior vis-à-vis oil production and transportation.”

“No. If Iran were to come to the conclusion that higher oil prices were in its national interest we have given it far less risky options to accomplish this. The failure of the US to put in place any national energy policy other than convincing producers to hold US Treasuries and keep pumping has left us with an oil market that will continue to teeter on the brink of higher prices and lurch from one supply crisis to another. It can do this now. If it has chosen not to do so, it is because it has learned the lessons of Saudi Arabia and Nigeria—sudden surges in oil prices can be as destructive to the societies of producers as to the economies of consumers. And the lessons of Gazprom that addiction gives you more real, continuing power – and even a German Chancellor – whereas a naked display of that power can be costly.”

“Doubtful. Iran has to live in the same world with the other oil producers, it has an interest in a stable market place (at a high price for oil, of course), and a bomb will not protect it from economic and other countermeasures.”

“Yes. But only in response to coercive measures undertaken by the international community.”

“Yes. Iran might bully OPEC members or be more aggressive in its foreign policy. Closing the Strait [of Hormuz] would hurt Iran tremendously, however, and it would not do this except in very dire circumstances.”

“Yes, of course. Simply posturing about nuclear weapons is a big economic gain for Iran because it drives up oil prices.”

C. Use its nuclear weapons offensively, either by directly attacking other countries or by passing the weapons to terrorist groups?
86% No
14% Yes

“I would say no to all three of these possibilities, unless we attack them.”

“No, but I am not as certain as I would like to be.”

“No. Iran can be deterred from doing so by the certain knowledge of devastating retaliation.”

“No. They will face very credible nuclear deterrence from the US and Israel.”

“No. Iran has had chemical weapons for twenty years now and has not passed them to terrorists—upping the stakes and passing a nuclear weapon would be highly unlikely.”

“No. I think they will closely parallel the Chinese approach to nuclear weapons—as the ultimate symbol of superpower status and political might, but not as a war-fighting asset. I think we can deal with a nuclear Iran through traditional methods of deterrence.”

“No. Nuclear weapons will make Iran more confident and perhaps more influential, but not necessarily more irresponsible. Certainly that has not been the effect of such capacity upon any other nuclear power. The U.S. will be able to deter Iran from any use of its nuclear capacity against the U.S. and its allies. Of course Iran will to a much lesser degree also be able to deter the U.S.”

“The questions miss the point. Iran would attempt to exploit the possession of nuclear weapons for purposes of prestige, rather than any immediate concrete or exceptionally well-defined objectives.”

“No. Nobody even halfway rational—and the Iranians are not irrational—is going to pass nuclear weapons to anyone else, much less a terrorist group that might just attack the country that gave it the bomb. Offensive use of the bomb would be ridiculous, even as a cover for a non-nuclear attack, because Iran would be destroyed in the process. And who would let it get to the point that it would have a true second-strike deterrent? Let's face it: for Iran, a bomb would be a political white elephant—just as Qaddafi concluded—except perhaps to show it could build the bomb and to exert some more influence in the region. But it would become even more of a pariah state, it would be surrounded by Sen. John Warner's 'ring of deterrence,' and it would find that it had got itself a bad deal. I do not want to live in a world where Iran has the bomb, if only because of the uncertainties that that would pose; but that is different from saying that a bomb would free Iran from all constraints to behave within very severe limits in a part of the world where reasonable behavior is a price for doing business.”

“Yes. [Iran] is not building nuclear weapons as Christmas tree ornaments.”

“Yes – the real fear is [for Iran] to, at some point at least, give nuclear know-how and equipment to terrorist allies. This might fall short of "passing the weapons to terrorist groups" but falls long on the scale of danger.”

“This is the real question! Most analysts will say that history shows that possession of nuclear weapons makes states more risk adverse and interested in stability. Classic case is the loss of revolutionary zeal in China after it crossed the threshold. But the real question is whether Iran is like all other states or does it believe that it has a divine mission whose accomplishment may well require massive destruction—even its own. The awful truth is that no one knows the answer to this question. We do not know it, not because we have a broken intelligence service that is incapable of penetrating Tehran's inner sanctums—although that is probably true. We do not know the answer to this question because it is a battle that is on-going in Iran itself and the answer belongs to the unknown future not to the hidden, secret present. This leads me to the conclusion that YES it is possible that Iran might indeed might in one way or the other directly, actually use its nuclear weapons that we must do everything in our power and interests to delay, postpone and deny it the acquisition of these weapons.”

“Once again, your choices do not exhaust the possibilities. Would it increase Iranian influence and stature? Yes. Would it tend to make them bolder and more assertive in foreign policy in ways that may not be predictable? Yes. Will it have the effect of making other powers in the region seek to shore up their own arsenals? Yes.”

“No to all three, but frankly, the questions as stated miss the point. Whether it is likely to do so or not (more than a fifty percent chance) is less important than whether there is a reasonable chance that it might (zero to fifty percent) and the answer to each is yes. That makes it a sufficiently serious threat. Moreover, it could act aggressively in other ways not contemplated in the question that should concern us—e.g. meddling in Iraq more, funding and supporting Palestinian extremists more aggressively [from] behind a nuclear shield without broader intent to foment Islamic Revolution, or transferring technology (but not actual weapons) to others that are equally threatening to US interests.”

“The biggest negatives of Iran succeeding in realizing their nuclear ambitions are: First, triggering a 'cascade of proliferation' as imagined in the recent UN high level commission report, where countries like Egypt, Saudia Arabia, and Syria would form a multi-party arms race in the Middle East certain to increase instability in an already-unstable region and would likely to lead to some use of nuclear weapons. Second, the risk that in a semi-stable regime with multiple, competing power groups such as Iran’s, one would believe that it could transfer warhead to terrorists without fingerprints. Third, that Israel—the state for which this is the most urgent existential threat—attacks Iran to prevent them from getting the bomb, leading to retaliation against not only Israel, but the US which will be blamed as well, even if Bush administration tries to distance the US from Israel’s actions.”

“Yes or no answers are difficult for these questions. Iran might decide to use any of the courses of action described above, depending on how the leadership estimated the likely response. The action that most worries me is 'passing the weapons to terrorist groups'. That would provide the Iranians with the best cover for its actions.”

PARTICIPANTS (38): Kenneth Adelman, Graham Allison, Ronald Asmus, Samuel Berger, Max Boot, Stephen Bosworth, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Daniel Byman, Richard Clarke, Eliot Cohen, Ivo Daalder, James Dobbins, Lawrence Eagleburger, Douglas Feith, John Gaddis, Robert Gallucci, Leslie Gelb, Marc Grossman, John Hamre, Gary Hart, Bruce Hoffman, Robert Hunter, Tony Judt, Robert Kagan, David Kay, Andrew Krepinevich, Charles Kupchan, John Lehman, James Lindsay, William Nash, Joseph Nye, Carlos Pascual, Thomas Pickering, Kenneth Pollack, Joseph Ralston, Susan Rice, Wendy Sherman, James Steinberg.

Not all participants answered every question.

Photo by Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images