The Iranian Calculus

Kenneth M Pollack and
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI
Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

August 3, 2006

We may never know the extent to which Iran was involved in Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers — the incident that started the war in Lebanon. Hezbollah is not merely Tehran’s pawn, and may have acted entirely on its own.

But the current fighting in Lebanon is an opportunity for Tehran, which can benefit from the conflict even if Hezbollah suffers on the battlefield. If the latter can simply survive and keep trading blows with Israel, its influence — as well as that of Tehran — will soar throughout the Islamic world. Moreover, for as long as the fighting lasts, the Security Council may have difficulty summoning the political will to stand up to Iran. And the longer the fighting goes on — with international distress over the humanitarian crisis — the greater will be Iran’s opportunity to step in and pose as peacemaker. Iran’s foreign minister has already offered to mediate the dispute.

Tehran’s help in stopping the war would come with a price tag: the agreement of the international powers to back off efforts to contain its nuclear program. If Tehran offered to stop the fighting in Lebanon and to prevent a wider war, would the international community really respond by hauling it before the Security Council and begin imposing sanctions over the nuclear issue? The temptation to give Tehran a pass might be even greater if it sweetened the deal with an apparent compromise. While ostensibly agreeing to suspend enrichment, Iran might request that it be allowed to keep a “pilot” centrifuge program, a limited enrichment capability that the West has so far steadfastly refused. Would the West really risk a new war in Lebanon and crisis in the Middle East over one or two “experimental” centrifuge cascades?

A deal along these lines will be tempting to some of America’s allies, but Washington should do all it can to avert it. Such an arrangement would allow Tehran to buy time to advance its enrichment process, which is key to developing a nuclear-weapons capability. Once the regime masters the technology of a centrifuge cascade, the process of enriching bomb-grade uranium would be only a matter of time. Moreover, accepting any deal that did not lead to Hezbollah’s permanent disarmament would enable Tehran to turn on the spigot of violence whenever it needed to move on to the next step in its nuclear program. Such leverage could theoretically be employed right up to the moment when Iran had a nuclear weapon — at which point it might have little incentive to stop Hezbollah from conducting new, even more aggressive campaigns.

Washington needs to prepare for these potential longer term developments, even as it seeks to deal with the current emergency. That means, first, accepting the importance of stopping the violence in the region sooner rather than later, and on American, rather than Iranian, terms.

The administration’s determination to give Israel time to destroy the Hezbollah military infrastructure is understandable but mistaken. Because Israel’s military operations cannot destroy Hezbollah without destroying Lebanon in the process, time plays to Tehran’s advantage. There is a battle between the U.S. and Iran to see who will appear more reasonable to the world. If Iran seems more reasonable on Lebanon, it will weaken the international consensus to stop its nuclear program. So a U.S. initiative to stop the violence should include more than just a cease-fire: It should also include a major program to train and equip the Lebanese military so it can eventually disarm Hezbollah; massive economic assistance to Lebanon to win popular support for such an effort; encouragement of Israel to discuss all issues of concern with the Lebanese government; and an international force that can help the Lebanese armed forces establish a buffer zone along the border until the Lebanese are ready to handle the mission on their own.

In addition, the administration should use this opportunity to pursue a multilateral approach to Damascus, designed to force it to choose between its ties to Hezbollah and Iran, and its desire for reintegration into the global community. In return for Syrian assistance in shutting down supply routes to Hezbollah, the West should offer Syria two paths: One would entail its giving up its WMD programs and support for terrorist groups, in return for peace negotiations leading to economic assistance and political rapprochement; the other would mean ever greater economic and political isolation.

Meanwhile, the U.S., together with the Europeans, Russians and Chinese, must refuse to allow Tehran to use the Lebanon crisis as a way of avoiding sanctions over its nuclear program. The 14-1 Security Council vote on Monday, insisting that Iran suspend its nuclear activities and react positively to the West’s nuclear offer was an encouraging sign, but it must be followed up by a determination to stand firm regardless of Lebanon. It might help to point out that if a primary reason for the U.S. or Israel to resist the temptation to use military force against Iranian nuclear sites was the risk that Iran would turn Hezbollah loose on Israel, that disincentive is now noticeably absent.

Even as we cope with the more immediate aspects of the current crisis, the long-term goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear-enrichment capability must not be forgotten.