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The Iranian nuclear threat.

Despite unprecedented and growing economic coercion, there has been no indication that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is reconsidering his long-held philosophy that giving in to pressure is a sign of weakness that only results in more pressure. "If you supplicate, withdraw and show flexibility," Khamenei frequently says, "arrogant powers will make their threat more serious." What's more, the example that Khamenei has drawn from recent history is that Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi's 2002 abdication of his nuclear program made him vulnerable to the 2012 intervention that resulted in his overthrow, whereas Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons turned foreign pressure into engagement.

In his twenty-three-year tenure as supreme leader, Khamenei has sought to preserve the status quo by eschewing transformative decisions. As Iran's economy continues to deteriorate, however, Khamenei may soon conclude that he must choose one of two options to try and win sanctions relief: a nuclear deal or a nuclear weapon.

Despite Khamenei's aversion to compromise, a decision to pursue nuclear weapons is fraught with enormous risks. Overt signs of weaponization--such as the expulsion of nuclear inspectors or the enrichment of uranium to weapons grade--are likely to trigger U.S. or Israeli military action.

Moreover, the acquisition of nuclear weapons would open up a whole new set of challenges for Tehran. It could, for instance, prompt Iran's neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to take countervailing steps, including intensifying defense cooperation and procurement arrangements with the United States, France, and others. Or Tehran's neighbors could choose to begin their own nuclear power programs to signify potential future military options. They could even foment unrest among disgruntled minorities within Iranian territory and further constrict trade with Iran.

Unless Khamenei wants to provoke a military attack on Iran in an attempt to resuscitate revolutionary ideology and repair the country's internal rifts (an improbable but not implausible prospect), he will continue to favor a deliberate, incremental approach to the development of Iran's nuclear capabilities. But Khamenei faces a dilemma if he actually wants to develop nuclear weapons. He must calculate whether his regime can sustain severe and escalating economic pressure during the time it would take to acquire a sufficient nuclear deterrent. He must also consider the possibility that foreign intelligence services have penetrated Iran's nuclear facilities and prepared various obstacles--computer viruses, "accidental" explosions, mysterious assassinations, and defections--that could set Iran's nuclear clock back even further.

Are these challenges enough to force Khamenei into a compromise?

Striking a Deal

On the other side of the coin, the United States and the rest of the P5+1 must decide whether they are prepared to offer Iran incentives that would be sufficient to induce it to compromise, and what a potential U.S.-Iran nuclear breakthrough might look like.

The long U.S. presidential campaign offered many opportunities for partisans to say what a potential deal should forbid Iran from doing. Unsurprisingly, some demanded that Iran should be left with "no capability" to make nuclear weapons. Such positions, though often vaguely worded, seemed to require Iran to "end its nuclear program"--that is, cease all uranium enrichment. That would certainly be ideal from a nonproliferation standpoint, but there is virtually no chance that Iran will abdicate what it and many developing countries now insist is a right--enrichment.

The practical question, then, is what specific commitments could be negotiated, verified, and enforced to keep Iran far enough away from having a nuclear weapon that the world would have confidence it could detect an Iranian breakout and mobilize an appropriately robust response, and at the same time allow Iran to exercise its "right" to enrich for purely civilian purposes.

Such a deal would have to include commitments by Iran not to undertake specific experiments, import certain materials, and engage in other activities that would be vital to making nuclear weapons and therefore illegitimate for a peaceful nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already identified some nuclear weaponization benchmarks and others could be specified. In essence, the United States and its partners would be asking Iran to verify Khamenei's repeated religious declarations that his country would not seek nuclear weapons.

The establishment of detailed and mutually agreed boundaries between Iran's nuclear program and a nuclear weapons program could give tolerable confidence that Iran's continued enrichment of uranium to power-reactor levels (below 5 percent) could be acceptable. In addition to saving face domestically, continued enrichment would give Khamenei and other wary leaders leverage to keep the United States from reneging on its commitments. Iran could ratchet up the level of enrichment in a tit-for-tat response to failures by the United States or others to keep their side of any deal.

Such an agreement would also require the United States and the EU to ease the most punishing sanctions, namely, those against Iran's central bank, the EU oil embargo, and SWIFT financial sanctions.

Negotiating such a detailed deal is made more difficult by the fact that the main antagonists--the governments of Iran and the United States--deeply and bitterly mistrust and loathe each other (which is not the case for societal relations between the two). Indeed, one of the fundamental--and potentially insurmountable--challenges in reaching a nuclear resolution with Iran is Khamenei's deep-seated belief that Washington's underlying goal is to change the Iranian regime, not merely change its behavior.

Reassuring Khamenei otherwise, however, is complicated by the fact that he believes America's strategy to overthrow the Islamic Republic hinges not on military invasion but on cultural and political subversion intended to foment a "soft" or "velvet" revolution from within. To Khamenei, U.S. criticism of Iran's human rights record, its sponsorship of Persian language media broadcasts such as Voice of America, and the power of Hollywood are all symbols of America's cultural-cum-political subversiveness. In other words, Khamenei feels threatened not only by what America does, but by what America is.

Herein lies Washington's policy conundrum: no nuclear deal with Tehran can be made without Khamenei, yet there are few signs that a binding nuclear resolution can be made with him. In effect, Khamenei's obstinacy has the potential to make his fear of regime change a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Khamenei and his close colleagues are too proud and suspicious to ask for "guarantees" that the United States will not pursue regime change in Iran. But the United States has to address this issue in some way if a nuclear deal is to be completed and war avoided. American values, interests, and politics preclude halting support for democracy and human rights in Iran. The United States will not be silent in the event of popular uprisings in Iran or if Tehran threatens Israel or other neighbors. Nor will the United States stop facilitating the free flow of information and communications into Iran.

But if Tehran verifiably upholds a suitable arrangement not to move closer to nuclear weapons, the United States could plausibly commit not to take physical actions to unseat the Iranian government. Such a commitment could be verified to the extent that the United States (and others) is presumably undertaking covert actions against the Iranian government that Iran's leadership is aware of even if the Iranian public is not. The United States could stop those covert actions if Iran negotiated and upheld a suitable nuclear deal, and the Iranian leadership would be able to verify the cessation.

The Way Forward

Amid more than three decades of compounded mistrust and ill-will, a full resolution of the U.S.-Iran nuclear dispute is highly unlikely absent a broader political settlement between the two countries. Yet prospects for such a political settlement are scant until a leadership emerges in Tehran that begins to prioritize national and economic interests over ideological ones.

In this context, continued dialogue with Iran will be of use not necessarily to fully resolve the countries' differences but to manage them in an effort to prevent the cold conflict from turning hot. The Obama administration's unprecedented and unreciprocated overtures to Iran helped expose--to the world and to the Iranian people--the fact that Tehran, not Washington, is the intransigent actor in this equation. This has strengthened the breadth and the depth of the international coalition while at the same time widening Iran's internal fractures.

In the absence of a long-term, binding resolution, the United States should aim to compel Iran to cap its nuclear development in exchange for relief from sanctions and covert action in Iran. The goal of such diplomacy should be to put meaningful boundaries on Iran's nuclear activities and contain its political influence in the region until the regime is eventually transformed or changed through the weight of its internal contradictions and economic malaise. It is likely only then that a long-term settlement can be reached.

When this might happen is entirely unpredictable, but events in the Arab world over the past two years serve as a reminder that the line between the seeming invincibility of dictators and their inevitable demise is thin. A deal centered on the nuclear issue could give Iran's leaders, society, and the international community time to allow history to unfold without the unpredictable trauma of war.

Karim Sadjadpour (left) is senior associate for the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace ... George Perkovich (right) is vice president for studies and director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment.

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Title Annotation:Commentary, text and context
Author:Sadjadpour, Karim; Perkovich, George
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Date:Dec 21, 2012
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