January 18, 2012

Q&A With Colin H. Kahl on Dealing With Iran

As part of Foreign Affairs' "The Iran Debate: To Strike or Not to Strike," Georgetown Professor Colin H. Kahl took questions submitted to the conversation today from Twitter. His responses:

Peter Kiernan (@peter_kiernan): @ForeignAffairs What's the U.S. endgame on Iran's nuclear program? Get Iran to totally give up enrichment and rely on imported nuclear fuel?

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.

Mathew Shearman (@MathewShearman): @ForeignAffairs Do you envision Israel taking unilateral action with tacit U.S. approval? Or Obama (before election) coerced into it?

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.

Christopher Tulloch (@damnthedefiant): @ForeignAffairs Colin, Is the targeted assassination of Iranian citizens a justified tactic in preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons?

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.

Josh Hirschel (@j_aitch): @ForeignAffairs Is the Shia Crescent waning, and what are implications of an Israeli attack that only delays nuclear production?

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.

Eric Michael Garcia (@EricMGarcia): @ForeignAffairs What should the West expect from the split between Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah? #Iran

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.

Lastly, as I note in my article, the one thing that could unify the fractious elite inside the regime in an unhelpful way—and also rally the Iranian public behind them -- is a U.S. (or Israeli) strike.

Brent Caswell (@brentcas): @ForeignAffairs What would America do if it was confirmed that Iran possessed a nuclear weapon?

I don’t know for sure. I agree with Matthew Kroenig that certain Iranian actions -- such as expelling inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, beginning the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium, installing large numbers of advanced centrifuges, or building new covert facilities would likely create a decision-point for the use of force. If Iran blew past these redlines and Washington woke up one day to the surprise that Iran already had a bomb in the basement, it would not categorically rule out the possibility of military action, but it would obviously complicate it. In this improbable scenario, the United States might find itself in a situation similar to its current posture toward North Korea, having to rely on deterrence and containment while attempting to roll back the program over time. I think that is why most analysts recognize that, all else being equal, prevention is preferable.