Dealing with the Iranian Nuclear Challenge

December 6, 2012

            Tehran has “no urgent incentive to build nuclear weapons” according to a new policy brief by Robert Litwak. The nuclear issue is just part of a wider debate within Iran over how to interact with the outside world. The Islamic Republic “perceives the process of integration into an international community– whose dominant power is the United States– as an insidious threat to regime survival.” The following are excerpts from the policy brief from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, with a link to the full text at the end.

            The nuclear crisis with Iran is playing out against the backdrop of potentially significant societal developments in the country. The problem for the United States is that the nuclear crisis is immediate, whereas the prospects for regime change or evolution in Iran are uncertain. The time lines for nuclear weapons acquisition and societal change are simply not in sync.

All Options Are on the Table

            All options for dealing with the Iranian nuclear challenge may remain on the table, but none is good. Military action? In Iran, bombing would, at best, set back but not end the nuclear program. Moreover, the case for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program rests on an assessment that the theocratic regime is undeterrable and apocalyptic. But that depiction of Iran as an irrational state runs contrary to National Intelligence Estimates, which have characterized the clerical regime’s decision making as being “guided by a cost-benefit approach.” When asked whether the Iranian regime was messianic or rational, Obama said that Iranian decision making over the past three decades indicates that the clerics “care about the regime’s survival.”

            ...So Iran faces a profound dilemma. This outlier sees integration into the international community as a threat to regime survival, but Tehran’s posturing revisionism does not offer a viable long-term alternative. The nuclear question remains a proxy for the persisting debate about its relationship with the outside world. And that, in turn, presents Washington with a dilemma, one that may be managed but not resolved. Between the poles of induced integration and coerced regime change lies a third option, containment—an updated, retooled version of Kennan’s strategy that would decouple the nuclear issue from regime change and rely on internal forces as agents of societal change in Iran.


            In Iran, the nuclear issue remains a proxy for the unresolved debate over that country’s relationship with the United States and the outside world. Maintaining a hedge option for a nuclear weapon (absent some perceived security imperative for acquisition) is Iran’s strategic sweet spot.

            The term containment has been eschewed and delegitimized in U.S. policy debate. Yet it is an accurate description of current U.S. policy toward Iran and is likely to persist as long as the Tehran regime does not cross Washington’s red line of

Click here for the full text.