It seems to be an open-and-shut case. Nuclear weapons are bad. It's best for the world if no more countries acquire nuclear weapons. Iran is currently engaged in uranium enrichment that could eventually produce a nuclear weapon. It built a secret facility to advance this program and might now be building another one. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government makes all sorts of threatening statements about Israel, the United States, the West. We should therefore do everything possible to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
This is the script that the Obama administration is following. It has taken up where the Bush administration left off by pursuing stronger economic sanctions against Iran - and twisting the arms of allies like South Korea to follow suit - while continuing to hold out for the possibility of negotiations. There are murmurs of a preemptive military strike by Israel, which 51 percent of Americans believe the U.S. government should support. The Pentagon maintains that "all options are on the table."
So will this script inevitably lead to war, with Iran bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and the United States and its allies equally determined to do everything possible to prevent this from happening?
War is not inevitable. It's not even likely. But to understand why, it's important to work our way through the script to see where the story stops making sense.
Let's start with the latest news, that Iran is building a secret facility near Qazvin to evade International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring. The information comes from a rarely reliable Iranian dissident organization, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which remains on the U.S. terrorism list. Indeed, according to one U.S. official, "This facility has been under construction for years, and we've known about it for years. While there's still some ambiguity about its ultimate purpose -- not unusual for something that's still taking shape -- there's no reason at this point to think it's nuclear."
But Iran built a secret facility near Qom, which the United States, France, and Britain revealed in 2009, so why shouldn't we assume the worst? The Iranian government was clearly up to something, but there was considerable disagreement about when it began building the facility and what its ultimate purpose was. Iran subsequently opened up the facility to UN inspectors. This two-track policy of above-board facilities and secret installations suggests that the Iranian government does not have a unified approach (just as Congress, the Pentagon, the Department of Energy, the arms control community, and so on have different takes on the U.S. nuclear complex).
In fact, it's not even clear that Iran even intends to develop a nuclear weapon, given the negative consequences that forcing its way into the nuclear club could generate. Some analysts, like Juan Cole, believe that Iran simply wants what Japan has: non-nuclear status, a robust civilian nuclear program, and the ability to become nuclear within a relatively short period of time if necessary. This might be a fallback option for Iran, Joshua Pollack of Arms Control Wonk told me in a phone conversation, but it's not easy to discern a consensus position inside Iran. "It's hard to assess who is making the decisions on a daily basis," he says. Ahmadinejad, for instance, is something of a moderate on the nuclear issue, given his willingness to negotiate, but he is often vetoed by the top religious authorities.
Perhaps since we don't understand Iran's intentions, it's best simply to impose economic sanctions to dissuade the leadership from pushing any further with uranium enrichment. But the problem with this option is that the sanctions do little against the Iranian elites and instead punish the general population. This "rally around the flag" effect only encourages more popular support for the Ahmadinejad regime. Even the remnants of the reformist Green Movement have come to the difficult conclusion that the current regime enjoys substantial support in the country, particularly among the poorer classes, which are hardest hit by sanctions.
The UN sanctions aren't any more effective, argues Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Joy Gordon. "UN sanctions, for instance, targeted Iran's Bank Mellat on the grounds that it facilitated financial transactions for military entities," she writes in 'Smart Sanctions' on Iran Are Dumb. "But Bank Mellat is also one of the largest commercial banks in Iran, with over 1,800 branches and almost 25,000 employees. Bank Sepah, the fifth-largest bank in Iran, was also targeted, on the grounds that it 'provides support' for Iran's Aerospace Industries Organization. It's as though Chase Manhattan Bank were prohibited from doing business, and had billions of dollars in international assets frozen, on the grounds that one of its clients is Sikorsky Aircraft, which makes military helicopters."
If the sanctions don't prove effective, will the United States and/or Israel take the conflict up a notch? Probably not. There have been rumors of an impending attack on Iran for years, particularly after it became part of the Bush administration's "axis of evil." As FPIF contributor Saif Shahin argues in War Talk, Peace Talk, "if a strike on Iran were to have happened, it would have taken place at least five years ago. Fresh from his election to a second term, a warmongering U.S. president would have lost no sleep over domestic politics then."
If it's all talk on the U.S. and Israeli side, what about on the Iranian side? Ahmadinejad certainly indulges in confrontational rhetoric. But no, argues FPIF contributor Rex Wingerter, Iranian leaders make rational calculations that preclude suicidal attacks. "During Israel's three-week assault against Gaza, Iran offered no credible threats against Israel nor did it pressure neighboring Arab states to intervene to stop the carnage," he writes in Israel-Iran War: Not Inevitable. "Iran similarly left its Hezbollah allies to their fate during Israel's 2006 war in southern Lebanon. And rather than endanger larger economic and political interests, Iran remained relatively silent when Russia and China violently repressed militant Islamic activists in Chechnya and among the ethnic Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region."
The initial scenario thus turns out to be considerably more complicated. Iran's intentions are far from clear. The U.S. policy of pushing sanctions and promising talks is not achieving its intended result. War is not likely on the horizon.
So, then, should the United States play it safe and pray for sanctions to have an effect? This is ultimately a poor choice, and not just because sanctions are counter-productive. Iran, after all, isn't going anywhere, and neither is the nuclear program that enjoys widespread support among the populace and in the Arab world as well. Continuing to isolate Iran undercuts the Obama administration's efforts to engage the Islamic world and resolve the outstanding conflicts in the Middle East. "The intensifying danger that Iran's nuclear program poses to regional and global security is not a reason to continue isolating Iran," writes journalist Stephen Kinzer in his new book Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future, "but a reason to do the opposite: engage urgently with its government in the hope of avoiding its emergence as a full-fledged nuclear power."
The Bush administration's failure to continue Clinton's engagement of North Korea shows us what happens with the isolation strategy. With no other options, North Korea simply pushed ahead with its nuclear program. After the midterm elections, Obama should quickly make a deal with Iran - with the help of a third party like Turkey - and clean up another mess that the Bush administration bequeathed.