Iran: What the Mullahs Learned From the Neighbors

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

November 9, 2004

A quarter-century ago this month, several hundred Iranian students seized the American Embassy in Tehran, taking our Marines and diplomats hostage, and leaving Americans fuming and asking, “Why do they hate us?” Now, as the Bush administration prepares for its second term, Iran is again at the top the agenda, and we seem equally clueless as to how to approach it.

So how do we come up with a coherent plan for Iran? A good place to start would be by analyzing the smart moves and the many mistakes America made over the last 14 years with another member of the so-called Axis of evil: Iraq. There are some obvious similarities between the goals and methods of these two countries, and Iran learned a great deal from Iraq’s efforts to deceive the international community about its weapons programs. If we are to meet the challenge from Iran, there are four main lessons to be learned:

Beware the siren song of easy regime change. Throughout the 1990’s, many Americans claimed that Saddam Hussein’s regime was so hated by the Iraqi people that merely committing our foreign policy to regime change, arming a small band of insurgents and perhaps providing them with air support would be enough to topple the government. In the end, of course, it required a full-scale ground invasion to do so, and even the size of that effort has proved inadequate.

Similarly, there is good evidence that most Iranians want a different form of government, but there is little evidence that they are ready to take up arms against their rulers. Most Iranians simply don’t want to go through another revolution. While Iranians on the whole are probably the most pro-American Muslims in the region, they are also fiercely nationalistic. Given our experience in Iraq, we should assume they would resist any effort by America to interfere in their domestic affairs.

A diplomatic solution is far preferable to a military one. Though the problems America faces in Iraq today would likely be argument enough against invading another Middle Eastern state, there’s another reason to hold off on attacking Iran: we do not have a realistic military option there. Our troops are spread thin, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards could mount a far more potent military insurgency than the rebels in Iraq. Nor do strategic air strikes on nuclear targets seem like a viable alternative. One lesson Iran learned from Iraq was to widely disperse its nuclear facilities, duplicate them, hide them and harden them. Today we do not know enough about Iran’s nuclear network to know if a widespread air campaign could even set it back significantly, while we doubtless would face retaliation from Iran in the form of terrorist attacks and an all-out clandestine war by Iranian agents in Iraq.

A multilateral approach can produce results where a unilateral course may fail. The key element in Saddam Hussein’s decision to give up his nonconventional weapons programs—or at least put them on ice—was the willingness of the French, Russians and Chinese to agree, in the wake of the Persian Gulf war, to a system of inspections and economic penalties built around the idea that sanctions would remain as long as the inspectors kept finding elements of the regime’s illegal weapons programs. The problem came over the next decade, as these countries repeatedly broke ranks with America and Britain and the pressure on Baghdad abated, allowing Iraq to defy the inspectors and siphon billions of dollars from the United Nation oil-for-food program. By 2003, the perfidy of Iraq’s friends on the Security Council was so apparent that it seemed likely Saddam Hussein would soon accomplish his goal of having the sanctions lifted or seeing them collapse.

Our dealings with Iran have shown similar tendencies. During the 1990’s, the United States tried to change Iranian behavior by cutting off all commercial relations. It was a policy that was all sticks and no carrots. While these sanctions did accomplish important secondary objectives (like limiting Iran’s military build-up), they failed to have much impact on the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons or support for terrorism. On the other hand, Europe and Japan pursued a policy of nothing but carrots: providing boatloads of aid and trade in the hope that it would somehow convince Tehran to behave itself. Of course, it did nothing of the kind.

If we and our allies ever want to force real changes by the mullahs—and give them a reason to slow or halt their nuclear program—we are going to have to agree to a multilateral approach that combines carrots and sticks. That means being ready to reward positive steps that Iran might take—including greater access to nuclear sites and diminishing support for terrorism—with immediate trade benefits, while simultaneously imposing tough sanctions for each step it takes in the wrong direction.

It’s worth recalling that over the past 15 years we have seen Iran back down in the face of the threat of multilateral sanctions. In 2003, for example, the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed that Iran had a program for uranium enrichment. Convinced that the Europeans and Japan were serious about punishment, Iran agreed temporarily to suspend the program. (Not surprisingly, once the European threat faded, the program was restarted immediately.)

One of the goals of a balanced approach should be to convince Iran to accept a robust inspection program with a legitimate threat of sanctions to back it up. Here as well, the experience with Iraq should make us comfortable that if we can get such a system in place with Iran, it has a good chance of succeeding. Of course, the difference is that with Iraq we had Security Council resolutions that authorized comprehensive inspections, imposed draconian sanctions and permitted, under certain circumstances, the use of force. With Iran today, we have only the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—a voluntary measure that allows inspectors to look only where the country allows them to look, does not actually prohibit the development of fissile material and carries only the vague threat of unspecified sanctions if the Security Council can agree on them. Only a coherent strategy among the United States, Europe and Japan will bring Iran to heel.

It is much easier to get our allies on board for punitive measures if we decide well in advance what will set them in effect. In our dealings with Iraq in the 1990’s, we learned that the toughest negotiations were with our allies, not our adversary. Only once have the United States and Britain been able to convince our allies to back our demands that Saddam Hussein disarm—in 1991, at the end of the Persian Gulf War.

After that, the international inspectors and the security services of many countries repeatedly caught the Iraqis cheating, lying, smuggling prohibited goods, undermining the sanctions and otherwise violating their pledges time and again. But we were never again able to come to any agreement at the Security Council to sanction Iraq—let alone those countries that were violating the resolutions on Iraq.

The same pattern is even more likely to hold true for Iran, where the Europeans, Japanese, Russians and Chinese all do a great deal of business. This is why the threat of “referring” Iranian violations of the nonproliferation treaty to the Security Council is not much of a threat—it is unlikely that the Security Council will summon the courage to impose meaningful penalties on Tehran.

Instead, we have to lay down clear red lines that, if Iran chooses to cross them, would automatically set off pre-established multilateral sanctions. The violations could include Iran’s deciding to resume production of uranium hexaflouride, a compound used in enriching nuclear fuel for weapons; starting new enrichment operations at the Natanz centrifuge facility; importing additional enrichment technology; constructing new enrichment or plutonium extraction plants; testing ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warhead; and refusing to stop mining uranium domestically.

Looking at the Iraq example, the bottom line for Iran is that we have to act now, while we still have some options left that might persuade the mullahs in Tehran to slow or halt their nuclear program. But we must get our allies on board immediately, and get firm commitments from them should Iran go back on its word in the future. The last thing we want to do three or five or ten years from now is to be bickering at the Security Council while Iran joins the nuclear club.