Iran: Nuclear and More Radical

Iran’s Conservatives Consolidate Power (Robin Wright, WaPo, A10)

After eight years of a bold but bungled experiment with reform, Iran’s government is in the throes of a takeover by conservatives determined to restore the revolution’s Islamic purity, according to Iranian politicians and analysts. The transformation is symbolized by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose limited scholarly credentials were questioned even by his peers when he was selected 15 years ago. His authority caused a national debate during the reform era, when he was in danger of being sidelined politically, analysts said. Today, however, they said, Khamenei is more powerful than at any time since 1989, when he succeeded the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Critics said his control is as far-reaching as that of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi before he was overthrown in 1979.


Khamenei’s consolidation of power, partly through a new parliament that took office in May, has given even more leverage to religious institutions, including the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards and vigilante groups such as Ansar Hezbollah, analysts said. As a result, fear, intimidation and harassment have become instruments of the state in ways reminiscent of the early fervor following the 1979 revolution, Iranians complain. Women can still get away with relaxed dress, but the debates over political openings and reforming Islam have gone behind closed doors, or ended.


The big question in Tehran these days is about which conservatives will dominate. Their camp now offers at least four distinct philosophies about running the country and dealing with the outside world. . .

From that rather scary beginning though, Wright breaks down the four conservative factions and notes that the two most dominant, which she dubs the “neo-conservatives” and “pragmatic conservatives,” are essentially reformers who want to both maintain an Islamist state and modernize and make enough accomodation with the West to avoid serious conflict.

Christian Lowe, writing in the Weekly Standard, asks the related question, “A Nuclear Iran: Is it a question or ‘if, or ‘when’?

IRAN’S RECENT PUBLIC DECISION to halt its uranium enrichment program could be the first move in a gradual opening of its society and an attempt by Iran’s moderate factions to integrate Tehran into the world’s economy. Could the pursuit of nuclear weapons be merely a bargaining chip for greater concessions by the Europeans and the United States to take pressure off the Islamic regime? Should Iran’s agreement to halt its nuclear weapons program and open its research facilities to U.N. inspectors be taken at face value? The prospects for success are not encouraging, one expert writes. And based on Tehran’s latest attempt to maintain some of its uranium enrichment capability despite its earlier pledge to abandon it, it seems that Iran is still unwilling to forego the nuclear option.

Iran’s history of waging war through terrorist proxy forces, its decrepit military, the growing strength of the United States in the region, and lessons learned from a host of regimes who developed covert nuclear programs lead to the suspicion that Iran will likely forge ahead with its nuclear weapons program despite its recent pledge not to. In the August 2004 edition of the U.S. Army War College’s professional journal, Parameters, Richard Russell contends that Iran’s mullahs believe that the path to security is paved with the bomb.


Not only does Iran have “geopolitical aspirations” to be a major player in the Middle East, as Iraq did under Saddam Hussein, but it has also invested billions in its covert nuclear weapons program. The further deterioration of the regime’s armed forces–which Russell contends are weaker now than at any time since the 1979 revolution–combined with the U.S. victory in Iraq “have fueled Iran’s insecurity and geopolitical sense of encirclement.” Nuclear weapons, therefore, are “a means to fill the void in military and deterrent capabilities,” Russell writes.

Don’t take Iran’s latest pledge at face value, Russell adds. The mullahs in Tehran have been developing their nuclear weapons program in secret for years and have seen how Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea have developed theirs clandestinely and with little firm protest or reprisal from word powers. Iran will likely continue to develop its bomb secretly and deny it publicly until the project is complete–despite U.N. controls and inspections. “Iran has had plenty of opportunity to learn lessons on beating the IAEA inspection regime from watching Iraq and North Korea, which both cheated successfully against IAEA inspectors. . . . The Iranians would be foolhardy to undermine their civilian nuclear power cover story and announce their quest for nuclear weapons, only to increase their vulnerability to American and Israeli preventative action,” Russell writes.

Roughly three years ago, President Bush proclaimed Iraq, Iran, and North Korea to be an “Axis of Evil.” While most analysts scoffed at this, it looks in hindsight to be incredibly prescient. Unfortunately, Iraq was the easiest of the three cases to deal with. Our options with Iran and North Korea are more limited and grow more so as each day passes.

As I’ve noted many times with respect to North Korea, the acquisition of nuclear weapons is seductive because it limits U.S. military options, largely negating our asymmetrical conventional advantage. As Russell notes in the Parameters piece (Iran in Iraq’s Shadow: Dealing with Tehran’s Nuclear Weapons Bid),

The Iranians have learned that the road to nuclear weapons is best paved with ambiguity. The Israelis, Pakistanis, Indians, and apparently the North Koreans successfully acquired nuclear weapons by cloaking their research, development, procurement, and deployment efforts with cover stories that their efforts were all geared to civilian nuclear energy programs, not to be harnessed for military applications. Tehran could not have failed to notice that once these states acquired nuclear weapons mated with aircraft and missile delivery systems, they escaped—so far, at least—military preemptive and preventive action by rival states. In marked contrast, the Iraqis suffered as the result of Israeli and American preventive military actions, in part because Baghdad was not fast enough in acquiring nuclear weapons. The Israeli strike on an Iraqi nuclear research plant in 1981 and the American wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 might have been deterred had Iraq managed to acquire nuclear weapons.

Russell notes that the war in Iraq has made the Iranian case more difficult:

American military endeavors in the greater Middle East region necessitated by 9/11 have fueled Iran’s insecurity and geopolitical sense of encirclement. As Ray Takeyh notes, “The paradox of the post-September 11 Middle East is that although Iran’s security has improved through the removal of Saddam and the Taliban in Afghanistan, its feelings of insecurity have intensified.†The United States used its military presence in the Persian Gulf to support operations both in Afghanistan and Iraq, even if host-country partners were reticent about publicly discussing their support, which cut against the grain of Arab public opinion. In its campaign against al Qaeda, much to Iran’s chagrin, the United States also has had hubs of military activity or transit rights in several countries in Central Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. (footnotes omitted)

At the same time, though, the Iranian case illustrates why waiting longer in Iraq for inspections would have been a futile effort:

Tehran for its part probably calculates that its acceptance of the no-notice inspections will buy Iran more time to work on its clandestine nuclear weapons program by politically diffusing international support for an assertive American stance. At the same time, Tehran probably is betting that it can work on nuclear weapons undetected by IAEA inspectors. Iran has had plenty of opportunity to learn lessons on beating the IAEA inspection regime from watching Iraq and North Korea, which both cheated successfully against IAEA inspectors. Both Iraq and North Korea worked feverishly on nuclear weapons programs while officially considered “in good standing†in the eyes of the IAEA inspectors and their governing NPT. Only US intelligence was able to catch North Korea covertly working on a uranium enrichment program, which led to a chain of events that resulted in Pyongyang formally withdrawing from the NPT. The massive scope of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was revealed only after Iraq’s 1991 battlefield defeat and intrusive UN weapons inspections. UN inspectors found the Iraqis to be expert in denial and deception efforts that allowed them to vigorously pursue a nuclear weapons program despite years of IAEA inspections. If IAEA inspectors were on their way to a sensitive Iranian site, Tehran’s security services could manufacture all kinds of obstacles to slow the IAEA team or misdirect them, just as the Iraqis did with IAEA and UN weapons inspections.

The hope has long been that quasi-democratic forces within Iran itself will solve the problem for us, especially if our efforts in Iraq are successful. As Wright’s piece notes, however, the tide might be going in the other direction.

Ultimately, Russell believes that diplomatic efforts alone will be ineffective and a pre-emptive military strike–or at least the threat of it–might be the best of a bad set of options.

The threat of a US invasion of Iran should not be taken off the table, because it could be used to bolster the strength of coercive diplomacy to compel the Iranians to desist on nuclear weapons and to accept robust and intrusive international inspections to help ensure their compliance with the NPT. The most imprudent step a statesman can make is to let his adversary know what he is not prepared to do; that profoundly undermines his political leverage to achieve interests without resort to force. President Clinton made this critical mistake in the 1999 Kosovo war, in which he declared that US ground forces would not be used against Serbia.

While hope is not a strategy, one hopes that the combination of diplomacy and the threat of military action will suffice. It’s unclear how we can get sufficient assurance that Iran’s program has halted, however, with the mullahs running the show.

Update (1042): Michael Ledeen, long a hawk on Iran, is hopeful of a non-military solution could work:

I do not believe Israel will solve this problem for us, both because it is militarily very daunting and because successive Israeli governments have believed that Iran is too big a problem for them, and if it is to be solved, it will have to be solved by the United States and our allies. Whether that is true or not, I have long argued that Iran is the keystone of the terrorist edifice, and that we are doomed to confront it sooner or later, nuclear or not. Secretary of State Powell disagreed, and he was at pains recently to stress that American policy does not call for regime change in Tehran — even though the president repeatedly called for it. And the president is right; regime change is the best way to deal with the nuclear threat and the best way to advance our cause in the war against the terror masters. We have a real chance to remove the terror regime in Tehran without any military action, but rather through political means, by supporting the Iranian democratic opposition. According to the regime itself, upwards of 70 percent of Iranians oppose the regime, want freedom, and look to us for political support. I believe they, like the Yugoslavs who opposed Milosevic and like the Ukrainians now demonstrating for freedom, are entitled to the support of the free world.

A nice solution if we can get it. It’s entirely unclear to me how to support the opposition unless it is far closer to toppling the regime on its own than I have reason to believe.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.