Stop Talking Down to Iran

Defense Secretary Gates is right: the U.S. lacks a strategy for keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Reza Aslan on why cracking down on Israel and India is the only way to reach Ahmadinejad.

AP Photo; Reuters

Defense Secretary Gates is right: The U.S. lacks a strategy for keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Reza Aslan on why cracking down on Israel and India is the only way to reach Ahmadinejad. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is certainly not pleased that his secret memo to the White House admitting the lack of a long-term strategy to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions became public this week. But the admission cannot possibly come as a surprise to anyone.

True, President Obama has been working tirelessly with the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) to develop a new and more severe set of sanctions against the Iranian regime. The president should be commended for convincing both Russia and China to take part in the drafting of the sanctions resolution (a miraculous feat, considering the historic reluctance of both countries to even consider the possibility of Iran sanctions). But no one actually believes the agreement that ultimately comes out of the U.N. will have any "bite" to it, to use Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's ambiguous term.

Rather than trying to figure out how to stop Iran from building a nuke, perhaps we should focus instead on getting Iran not to want one.

The Gates memo seems to once again raise the specter of a U.S. military response should sanctions and diplomacy fail to halt Iran's nuclear work. Yet Gates himself has repeatedly stated that a military strike against Iran's enrichment facilities "would only be a temporary solution," one that, at best, would delay Iran's nuclear program by a year or two. (In this regard, Mr. Gates is mistaken; an American attack on Iranian soil would in all likelihood accelerate Iran's nuclear program).

As for the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran, let's not forget that the only way for Israeli planes to get to Iran is by flying over Iraqi airspace, which is strictly controlled by the United States. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said it best when he told the Daily Beast that the United States is not about to sit back like "impotent little babies" and watch as a foreign country—whether friend or foe—violates its airspace. Bottom Line: without American approval, which even George Bush refused to provide, Israel cannot attack Iran.

Making matters more complicated is that no one is exactly sure what Iran's nuclear ambitions actually entail. Intelligence reports about Iran's nuclear activity seem to shift by the year. The consensus view is that Iran needs another year or so to produce enough bomb-grade material to construct a single weapon. It would then need another two to five years to build an atomic bomb. Most analysts believe that Iran's ultimate goal is to reach nuclear latency as fast as possible, meaning that Iran would like to approach the threshold of a weapons program, but not actually assemble a weapon. That way, Iran could become a virtual nuclear weapons state while maintaining its status under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—something akin to what Japan has done with its nuclear program. But as Gates told David Gregory on Meet the Press last week, when it comes to Iran there is little difference between nuclear latency and nuclear weapons.

Graham Allison: Obama’s Nuclear MistakeAll of which brings us to this fundamental and admittedly uncomfortable truth: if Iran really wants to build a nuclear weapon, there is little anyone in the international community can do about it. So then, rather than trying to figure out how to stop Iran from building a nuke, we should focus instead on getting Iran not to want one.

It isn't difficult to imagine why Iran would want a nuclear weapon. The country's nuclear program is not just about national pride; it is about national security. It is true that from the American perspective, Iran poses a national security threat to the United States. According to U.S. officials, Iran's meddling in the domestic affairs of Iraq and Afghanistan and its support for anti-American militants in the region—from Iraq to Lebanon—cannot be tolerated.

Fair enough. But from Iran's perspective, it is the United States that poses the national security threat. It is the U.S. that is meddling in the affairs of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the U.S. that is arming anti-Iranian militants in the region—from Iraq to Lebanon. Despite the confident blustering of Iran's megalomaniacal president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian regime remains on guard and paranoid about U.S. intentions in the region. Think about it: Iran is literally surrounded by American troops: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman. A country encircled by soldiers from another country whose stated foreign policy is, unambiguously, regime change.

It is also true that Iran poses a national security threat to Israel (Note that I said a national security threat, not an existential threat. The only force capable of threatening the existence of Israel—the richest and most powerful country in the Middle East—is its own leaders' myopic refusal to admit that the country's future relies on the creation of a Palestinian state). But from the Iranian perspective, it is Israel, with its untold number of nuclear missiles pointed at Tehran, which poses a national security threat to Iran.

The fact is that Iran has learned a valuable lesson from its fellow Axis of Evil members. One of them—Iraq—did not have nuclear weapons and it was destroyed and occupied. The other—North Korea—does have nuclear weapons and the international community has racked up billions of dollars just trying to get its government to talk about its weapons program.

What would you do if you were Iran?

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Ultimately, the only way to address Iran's desire for a nuclear weapon is by tackling the larger issue of nuclear proliferation, not just in the Middle East, but across the globe. That entails rethinking the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, which has utterly failed as an effective anti-proliferation tool (North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, India, and counting). President Obama has vowed to update and strengthen the NPT to more effectively deal with the realities of nuclear proliferation in the 21st century. The NPT is slated for a review this fall during the annual UN General Assembly in September. The Security Council should urge all nuclear weapons nations who have yet to sign the treaty to adopt the NPT protocols and bring their nuclear programs under international scrutiny. That, of course, includes Israel, whose weapons program the U.S. has helped shield from international inspections for decades. It also includes India, with whom the US has just signed a major nuclear trade deal that completely guts the NPT, which expressly forbids a signatory state to provide such material support to a non-signatory state. Only by placing these outlying nuclear powers under stricter monitoring controls will the United States have the moral authority to more effectively deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions, whatever they may be.

The problem of Iran, as President Obama has correctly observed, is a global problem. We are fast approaching a world in which either everyone has nuclear weapons, or no one does. We must do whatever we can to keep Iran from developing nukes. That includes offering a set of security guarantees that will convince the Islamic Republic that its safety is better served without these catastrophic weapons than with them. But convincing Iran of this undeniable truth requires a comprehensive anti-proliferation policy that addresses the other nuclear nations in the region, all of which, including North Korea, receive billions of dollars in U.S. aid.

So I ask again. What would you do if you were Iran?

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.