Colin H. Kahl
- Country: The United States
- Title: Professor at Georgetown University
- Education: Columbia University, University of Michigan
- Books: States, Scarcity, and Civil Strife in the Developing World (2006)
The Obama administration’s stated goal is to prevent Iran from developing a “nuclear weapons capability,” which the president has described as “unacceptable” and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has called a “red line.” At the same time, the administration recognizes that, as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran has the right to pursue civilian nuclear energy so long as it can assure the international community that the program is intended solely for peaceful purposes. So any diplomatic deal would have to recognize Iran’s inherent rights while providing strict safeguards against any military dimensions of a program. Whether it is possible to do this in the context of any domestic Iranian enrichment remains unclear.
Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, view the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat, and there is no history of Israeli restraint in such circumstances. Israel attacked Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s al-Kibar facility in 2007 to prevent the emergence of nuclear-armed regional adversaries. So as Iran continues to make progress toward a nuclear weapons capability, Israeli anxiety will mount and the prospects for a preventive strike will increase. In the current context, however, it is difficult to see the United States tacitly supporting such a strike. The administration clearly shares Israel’s concerns, but argues there is still time for its dual-track policy of pressure and engagement to work. Moreover, as U.S. officials have made clear on numerous occasions, an Israeli strike would only delay Iran’s progress by 1–3 years and would likely trigger retaliation from Iran and its proxies against U.S. personnel and facilities in the region, which could be profoundly destabilizing.
On January 11, Secretary of State Clinton made clear that the United States was not involved in the death of the Iranian scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan. Clinton also stated that the United States does not view assassinations inside Iran as a solution to the nuclear issue. I agree with that.
I don’t really subscribe to the notion of a Shia crescent, but I think Iran is struggling in the face of regional developments. Its economy is reeling, its nuclear weapons ambitions increasingly mark it as a pariah state, its ally in Syria is wobbling, and perceived Iranian meddling during the Arab Spring has produced a precipitous decline in Iran’s popular support across the region.
Regarding the implications of an Israeli strike, I think it could inadvertently give the Iranian regime a regional lifeline. As I note in my article, a strike would allow Iran to play the victim, generate regional sympathy, and rejuvenate its “resistance” credentials through retaliation. This is true of a near-term U.S. strike, and is doubly true of an Israeli strike.
It is not clear yet what the ultimate implications will be for the trajectory of the regime, but it will likely make diplomacy more challenging. In 2009, for example, the United States and the other P5+1 states proposed a deal to swap 1,200 KG of Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile for reactor fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. The Iranians accepted the deal, and then rejected it, largely because of infighting inside the regime -- all this before the current feud between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Somewhat paradoxically, internal bickering actually provides one argument for maximizing the pressure on the regime through sanctions as a means of forcing an otherwise paralyzed government to make a decision they might otherwise choose to avoid. To be effective, however, this kind of pressure must be coupled with an opportunity for the regime to save face. That is why both elements of the “dual-track” approach -- pressure and engagement -- must be used in tandem if there is any hope of a diplomatic solution.