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Published on November 28th, 2011 | by Jasmin Ramsey

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RAND: Coping with a Nuclearizing Iran

The RAND Corporation has just released a report providing policy options for dealing with an Iran that is on the “nuclear threshold”. I haven’t read all of it yet, but following is a brief summary. I will add commentary and others analyses as they become available.

Notice the use of “nuclearizing” instead of “nuclear” in the title. That’s because authors James Dobbins, Alireza Nader, Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic Wehrey agree that it’s “not inevitable that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons or that it will gain the capacity to quickly produce them.” Still, they say the U.S. needs to reexamine options for dealing with an Iran that is working towards nuclear capability.

Many analysts will likely point out that the bulk of the study recommends more of the same with regard to current U.S. objectives and tactics:

The long-term objective should be to bring Iran fully into compliance with the NPT. The short-term objective should be to halt the Iranian program short of weaponization. Achievement of both objectives will require the deft employment of carrots and sticks.

Interestingly, “regime change” is referred to as the “best—maybe the only—path to achieving all three main U.S. objectives” for “restraining Iran’s external behavior, moderating its domestic politics, and reversing its nuclear weapon program.”

Included in the study is an analysis of the instruments that are currently available for policymakers. The pros and cons of diplomacy, economic sanctions, military and covert action and the various elements of soft power are examined as well. The thesis of the study is that that nothing should be used in isolation:

Pure engagement will get nowhere with the current Iranian regime. Containment constrains only Iran’s external behavior. Preemption deals only with the nuclear issue, and then only temporarily, while making progress toward the other two objectives more difficult. Deterrence is an appropriate complement to containment but, again, affects only Iran’s external behavior. Neither normalization nor regime change is an attainable short-term objective.

Containment is recommended as the base of all policy moves, accompanied by engagement only to the extent that it guards against potential clashes. Diplomacy, the authors argue, is “unlikely to yield substantial breakthroughs as long as the current Iranian leadership remains in power.” However, they reiterate Admiral Mullen’s recommendation that the U.S. open “reliable channels of communication” with Iran “in order to garner information, signal warnings, avoid unintended conflict, and be positioned to move on openings toward accord when and if one arises.”

Perhaps as an indirect reference to the Mujahedin-e Khalq’s (MEK, PMOI, MKO) ongoing lobbying campaign in Washington, the authors warn against the U.S. supporting “separatist elements and extremist groups, whom the vast bulk of the Iranian people reject”. (In 2009 the RAND Corporation produced a report devoted exclusively to the MEK “policy conundrum”.) Here the authors argue that covert and material support for any opposition group should also be avoided:

The MKO, still regarded by the United States (as well as Iran) as a terrorist organization, is widely disliked in Iran because of the support it received from and provided to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. U.S. support for the Green Movement will also result in it losing credibility, especially because the regime portrays it as a fifth column beholden to U.S. and Israeli interests. Even Iranians who oppose the regime might resent any sort of material U.S. support for Iranian opposition groups.

After reiterating the fact that even Iran’s reformers are unwilling to forgo their right to nuclear enrichment, the authors say it’s still possible to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons.

A “robust sanctions regime” is also endorsed even though the authors concede that sanctions have not changed Iranian policies.


About the Author

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Jasmin Ramsey is an Iranian-born journalist based in Washington, DC.



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