“The United States must back Iran into a corner, but offer it an attractive way out,” said Andrew Grotto, Senior National Security Analyst of the Center for American Progress and co-author of the recently released report “Contain and Engage: A New Strategy for Resolving the Nuclear Crisis with Iran.” Grotto opened an expert panel to mark the release of the report and discuss the Iranian nuclear question.
The published report includes a technical assessment of Iran’s program, an analysis of Iran’s domestic politics, and an overall threat assessment of a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran. The report also considers and rejects the four main U.S. policy options on Iran—the status quo policy of squeezing Iran, regime change via democracy promotion, air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and a “grand bargain.”
“We can’t be naïve about this. [Iran] is a real threat,” said Joseph Cirincione, Vice President for National Security of the Center for American Progress and co-author of “Contain and Engage.” “We have to convince them that they have to make a choice. The United States must remind Iran of the potential benefits of cooperation as well as the escalating costs of failure to comply with its nonproliferation obligations,” according to Grotto.
The contain-and-engage strategy would force Iran to choose between more productive relations with the U.S. and the international coalition against its nuclear program on the one hand, or its enrichment program on the other. The strategy also hedges against the possibility that diplomacy fails, in which case the diplomatic groundwork for a long-term strategy of containing Iran is already prepared.
The proposal aims to change Iran’s cost-benefit calculus over the importance of the enrichment program by showing Iranians how the program comes at a real opportunity cost to Iran’s economic development.
“The main day-to-day concern for normal Iranians is the economy, not the nuclear issue,” Grotto explained. “We want the U.S. to appeal directly to the Iranian people and show the tangible benefits of cooperation—in this case, something that will directly improve their lives.”
There is precedent suggesting that a carrot and stick strategy like this can succeed. “History shows that they make decisions under duress,” said Karim Sadjadpour, Senior Iran Analyst of The International Crisis Group. Sadjadpour explained that this is the case because the various factions of Iran’s government often can’t reach a consensus otherwise due to their mutually exclusive goals. “There is no consensus in Tehran, no consensus at the top,” he stressed.
This precedent can be seen in Iran’s aid to the U.S. in Afghanistan. “I don’t think we could have gotten the Karzai government up and running if it wasn’t for the help of the Iranians,” explained Geoffrey Kemp, Direct of Regional Strategic Programs of the Nixon Center.
Despite the good-will gestures made in Afghanistan, the U.S.-Iranian relationship collapsed soon after. “The Axis of Evil speech came as a shock,” Kemp explained. “The relationship went from promising to disastrous.”
Despite the degraded relationship, it may be possible to return to that mutually beneficial pragmatic relationship. “There are signs that Ahmadinejad, who represents the face of Iran’s stubborn bluster over its program, is growing weaker politically,” Grotto stated. Sadjadpour agreed and said, “Ideological camps in both Washington and Tehran are failing.”
Jacqueline Shire, Senior Analyst of the Institute for Science and International Security, gave a detailed analysis of Iran’s current nuclear capabilities to the audience.“I’m simply suggesting that if you look at the data … maybe [their nuclear program] is not doing as badly as some have suggested,” she explained “Iran is serious about what it is doing.”
“A near-nuclear Iran could spark a virtual arms race,” Grotto added. He then further emphasized how much is at stake, reminding the audience that “this is happening already.”
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