The United States and the Europeans joining together to negotiate
with Iran merely mirrors the multilateral approach already taken many
years ago with North Korea. Unfortunately, Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice combined the offer with a blunt and arrogant
pronouncement that Iran had a choice between two paths—cooperation or
confrontation with the international community.
The Iranians fired back by threatening to disrupt oil supplies if
attacked. The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s leader, said, “If the
Americans make a wrong move toward Iran, the shipment of energy will
definitely face danger, and the Americans would not be able to protect
energy supply in the region.”
Secretary Rice dismissed this threat saying, “I think something like
80 percent of Iran’s budget comes from oil revenue, and so obviously it
would be a very serious problem for Iran if oil were disrupted on the
The Ayatollah was implying that Iran could disrupt the world’s oil
market by blocking the shipment of much of Persian Gulf oil by making
the Strait of Hormuz impassable using its naval forces. Secretary Rice
is correct that this would also impede Iranian exports.
But if Iran were attacked, it might absorb this economic pain to
inflict punishment on the U.S. and its Western allies. In many past
conflicts, belligerents have thrown economic self-interest to the wind
when they thought their security was at risk.
Alternatively, any U.S. attack could spur Iran to encourage Shi’ite
militias in Iraq to directly attack U.S. forces. Muqtada al-Sadr, one of
the most powerful Shi’ite militia leaders, has already pledged to do
this if the United States attacks Iran.
This chain of events would lead to the collapse of U.S. policy in
Iraq—already hanging by a thread. Right now, the Iranians are supplying
and training Shi’ite militias in Iraq, but, unlike the Sunni insurgents,
they are not directly attacking U.S. forces. The Shi’ite militias are
only attacking Sunnis.
Thus, Iran is stirring the pot in Iraq but has not caused it to boil
over. However, if the U.S. attacks Iran, we can expect the Iranians to
unleash the Shi’ite militias on U.S. forces in Iraq. In addition, any
U.S. attack could also spur Iran to let loose Hezbollah—perhaps the most
competent terrorist group in the world—on U.S. targets.
With all of these drawbacks, what would a military strike against
Iran over its nuclear program achieve? If the experience of Iraq is any
guide, U.S. intelligence most likely does not know where all of Iran’s
nuclear facilities are located. Thus, air strikes could only take out
some of them and thus slow, rather than eliminate, Iran’s nuclear
In fact, knowing that the possession of nuclear weapons is the only
thing that could deter another U.S. attack, the Iranians would probably
then work over time to get the bomb.
U.S. air strikes would also be unlikely to topple the Iranian regime.
In fact, the disgruntled masses of Iranian youth, who are fed up with
the stifling theocratic government, would rally around the ayatollahs in
the face of an external threat. The out-of-touch regime would be
rejuvenated in the eyes of the people for another 20 years.
The only way that the U.S. military could eliminate both Iran’s
nuclear weapons and the Iranian government is by launching a full-scale
invasion and occupation of the country. This action would make the
invasion and occupation of Iraq look like a picnic.
Iran is almost four times bigger in area and two-and-a-half times
larger in population than Iraq. In addition, it is much more mountainous
than Iraq, creating an even greater potential for guerrilla warfare. And
the resistance, fueled by religious fundamentalism, would probably be
more intense than in Iraq.
Finally, if the Bush administration, while fighting in an incipient
civil war in Iraq, was foolish enough to launch an invasion of Iran, the
U.S. armed forces—already severely strained by the Iraq deployment—might
So if military options are not viable, negotiation is the only way
forward. But with the high price of oil and a quagmire in Iraq, the U.S.
negotiating position is weak. To make real progress, the United States
must go further and show Iran more respect by offering it a security
guarantee against attack.
To date, the United States has been unwilling to do this because it
views Iran as the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism. Yet Iran
supports terrorist groups that no longer attack the United States. Thus,
the United States has no reason to attack Iran and should have no
problem making that pledge.
But even a security guarantee may not convince Iran—spooked by the
U.S. invasion of Iraq—to give up its nuclear program. If not, the United
States’ only hope is that the youthful masses in Iran get fed up with
the regime during the five to 10 years it will take Iran to develop a
nuclear weapon. But because Iran lives in a rough neighborhood and
Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons, Iran’s nuclear program has
wide support across the political spectrum. So even regime change may
not eliminate the program.
In short, the United States may have to live with a nuclear Iran.
Although that development is not good, it is not as bad as it seems. At
best, the Iranians will have a few warheads and will need to develop a
long-range missile to deliver those warheads to the faraway United
States. More important, Iran has a return address that the United States
could incinerate with its nuclear arsenal containing thousands of
warheads—thus deterring an Iranian nuclear attack.
Thus, the United States should negotiate with Iran instead of bluster
but should not expect too many positive results.
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.