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Contain and Engage: A New Strategy for Resolving the Nuclear Crisis with Iran

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Read the full report (PDF)

View flow chart depicting the five options in Iran

View a nuclear fuel production schematic

View a timeline of Iran’s nuclear growth from 1967-1990

View a timeline of Iran’s nuclear growth from 1990-2015

Watch Joseph Cirincione and Andrew Grotto discuss the report (YouTube.com)

For six years, the United States has ineffectively confronted Iran over its nuclear program. Bush administration officials had several opportunities to constrain, perhaps even end, programs that could eventually give Iran a nuclear-weapons capability, but they rejected negotiations in favor of efforts to replace the ruling clerical regime. These efforts failed.

Iran now believes that it grows stronger while the United States grows weaker. U.S. entanglement in Iraq, the global addiction to oil, and the difficulties of building and sustaining a credible diplomatic coalition against Iran’s budding nuclear program have emboldened Tehran and hardened the country’s determination to proceed with its uranium enrichment efforts, which could produce not just fuel for reactors but fuel for bombs. Iran’s government has exploited both the Iraq war and the international dispute over its nuclear development efforts to create rifts between the United States and our essential security partners.

In the process, Iran’s clerical regime has broadened its regional influence, and in some ways strengthened its rule at home. The Bush administration has responded primarily by ratcheting up financial and military pressures, but has failed to change Iranian policy.

The administration’s recent actions and rhetoric paint a disturbing picture of a president preparing for war with Iran. The United States has every right to protect its forces in Iraq and the region.

U.S. military action that strays beyond these limited objectives, however, could harden Iran’s nuclear ambitions and give ammunition to those within the Iranian regime who say that nuclear weapons capabilities are the only way to safeguard their country.

There is little reason for Americans to have confidence in the Bush administration’s failed strategy for dealing with Iran. Its counter-proliferation and democracy-promotion strategies, heralded as fundamental breaks from the policies of the previous decades, have proved disastrous. The Iranian nuclear program has accelerated over the past six years, while other proliferation problems have worsened across the board.

A more effective approach is urgently needed. This report offers a new way forward. We identify five basic U.S. policy options for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, none of which offers an assured path to success. The options are:

1. Maintain the status quo of “muddling through.”

2. Non-military efforts to replace the current regime.

3. Military attacks on known Iranian nuclear facilities.

4. A “grand bargain.”

5. Decisive diplomacy to roll back Iran’s nuclear programs.

No simple solution exists for solving the Iranian nuclear problem. By rejecting the obviously flawed options, however, and then conducting a sober appraisal of the possible, we are left with our best available option: decisive diplomacy to contain and engage Iran.

This option boasts a number of interrelated policy proposals that we believe can achieve our core objective—the negotiated end of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program—within 12 to 18 months. The contain-and-engage strategy offers the best chance of testing Iran’s interest in trading away any future nuclear-weapons capability for present security and economic benefits that would accrue to the vast majority of the Iranian people.

At the same time, the strategy lays the groundwork for more effectively containing Iran should the country’s divided ruling elites still press ahead with its nuclear enrichment program. The strategy will also help illustrate to the Iranian people and the world that the United States tried to resolve our dispute with the clerics.

But first, what’s wrong with the first four options? This paper will explore in detail all five options, but briefly, here’s why we ultimately rejected the first four.

The first option, to “muddle through,” is often the default option in national security policy, particularly when deep divisions exist within a government. This is a policy with no clear strategic vision on how to employ the tools of American power—political, economic, and military—to achieve a common objective. Alas, “muddling through” is the current approach of the Bush administration. Divisions within the Bush administration have produced major strategic missteps in U.S. policy towards Iran, contributing to a worsening nuclear crisis and expanding Iranian influence in both Iraq and Afghanistan at the expense of America. Partial measures, whether negative, such as the sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department, or positive, such as the endorsement of economic incentives offered by the European Union, are unlikely to convince Iran to abandon uranium enrichment,1 as we detail on page 24.

The second option, to pursue regime change through democracy promotion and other non-military means, is unlikely to fundamentally change the character of the clerical government under the Iranian constitution. Direct U.S. aid or sponsorship of anti-government groups in Iran could fatally damage those groups’ credibility, weakening the indigenous forces for reform and retarding a genuine change of the regime. And even if such a change were to occur (as we detail on page 27), there is no guarantee that a democratically accountable government would renounce Iran’s nuclear programs.

The third option, to conduct military strikes against Iran’s known nuclear facilities, is the option least likely to achieve U.S. national security objectives. The United States could not assume that air strikes would buy anything more than a few years’ delay in Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. It is unlikely that the United States and its partners could use this delay to end Iran’s nuclear program. Military strikes would likely consolidate support for an otherwise unpopular government, provoke a variety of asymmetrical military responses that could develop into a sustained war with Iran, and trigger global economic and political repercussions highly detrimental to American global security interests. This option is the worst of the lot, as we detail on page 30.

The fourth option, to negotiate a “grand bargain” with Iran, is not practical. It would require the simultaneous resolution of too many other U.S.-Iranian conflicts to achieve the most important objective—the negotiated end of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. We agree with the vision of a “grand bargain” outlined by Middle East expert and former Bush administration official Flynt Leverett, who argues (beginning on page 33) that the resolution of the nuclear issue requires “an overarching framework in which outstanding bilateral differences are resolved as a package.”2 Neither the Bush administration nor the governing coalition in Iran, however, is capable of making the sweeping changes required by this strategy in the near term. Moreover, the issues of Iran’s involvement in Iraq, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, its hostility towards Israel, and its human rights record can and should be pursued on independent tracks from the nuclear issue.

Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is by far the most urgent issue and it alone has the attention of the UN Security Council and the leverage that brings. By holding this issue hostage to the resolution of all issues, the grand bargain strategy risks failure to resolve any of them. That’s why we believe our final option, to simultaneously contain and engage Iran, offers the best possibility of moving toward a broader agreement with concrete, reciprocal measures based on the principle that would underlie any grand bargain— recognition that the United States must address Iranian security concerns in exchange for Iran addressing ours.

The contain-and-engage strategy offers the best hope for slowing Iran’s nuclear efforts, testing Iran’s willingness to trade nuclear weapons capabilities in exchange for a fundamentally different relationship with the United States, and hedging against the failure of diplomatic efforts. The chief goal of this policy is to end Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

The strategy recognizes that progress towards this goal is unlikely without progress on the overall U.S.-Iranian relationship, the development of regional security arrangements and the creation of a mechanism for assuring a steady supply of nuclear fuel to Iran and other nations. Our strategy, however, is not a long-term, comprehensive strategy for resolving all the issues that separate the U.S. and Iran. Rather, it focuses on the near-term challenge of constraining Iran’s nuclear program so that the most dangerous aspect of that program—uranium enrichment—can be curtailed.

The reason: If Iran’s enrichment program is not delayed over the next two years, Iran’s nuclear engineers may achieve a level of self-sufficiency to enable them to hide their activities from international inspectors and national intelligence agencies far more effectively. This could undermine the balance of power in the region and the viability of the global nonproliferation regime.

Conversely, constraining Iran’s nuclear program would create the necessary time to work toward resolving a broader range of issues with Iran and shore up global efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Thus, U.S. policy should look to implement a series of measures that could contain the Iranian nuclear program and minimize Iran’s regional influence.

We should complement these containment efforts with sufficient diplomatic openings to engage pragmatic members of Iran’s ruling elite and appeal to the broad masses of the Iranian public in order to isolate and weaken the radical revolutionary elements represented by President Mohammed Ahmadinejad. Key elements of this policy include:

  • Isolating Iran as long as it continues with its nuclear enrichment efforts;
  • Preserving the unity of the UN Security Council and other nations engaged in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program;
  • Maintaining international and national sanctions, however limited, for the pressure they bring on the Iranian economy;
  • Restricting Iran’s access to nuclear and missile technologies;
  • Breaking the diplomatic stalemate over Iran’s defiance of the Security Council’s demand to suspend enrichment, including direct dialogue with Iran;
  • Investing in new diplomatic infrastructure, both security- and nonproliferation- related, across the Middle East in order to engage and contain Iran and to provide assurances to key U.S. allies that the United States remains committed to their security;
  • Preparing smart military options to thwart any offensive Iranian military activities;
  • Engaging Iran economically, beginning with the gasoline refinery sector;
  • Creating a regional nuclear fuel bank consortium under IAEA leadership;
  • Laying the diplomatic groundwork for a long-term strategy of containing Iran should negotiations break down.

In short, the international community must constantly remind Iran of the potential benefits as well as the continued and escalating costs of its failure to comply with its nonproliferation obligations. Rather than pursue the faint hope that the organization of coercive measures will force Iran’s capitulation, our contain-and-engage strategy couples the pressures created by sanctions, diplomatic isolation and investment freezes with practical compromises and realizable security assurances to encourage Iran onto a verifiable, non-nuclear weapons path.

As our report will make clear, a technical assessment of Iran’s nuclear development program alongside a fundamental understanding of the complex political dynamics within that country point inexorably toward our approach as the best U.S. national security option available. There is no guarantee of success, but without making the effort, we face guaranteed failure.

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