Iran’s Nuclear Gamble
Iran has temporarily receded from the headlines, but its nuclear program hasn’t gone away. The challenge Iran poses for the international community, and the way in which it is resolved, will be one of the defining issues of this decade.
The international community, led by the P5-plus-1 group (the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany), wants a political solution to the nuclear issue, but the military option is still out there, waiting in the wings.
Now is our chance to think through the Iranian issue before it lurches back again into crisis. There is a lot of muddled and naïve thinking about Iran, and particularly about the merits of a military strike against it.
The muddle comes from confusion over the objectives of a potential strike. One of the best recent studies on this issue was published by The Iran Project in the United States last September. Entitled, “Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran,” it did just that in calm, clear, and dispassionate language designed for non-specialists. A large bipartisan group of retired American military, national security, and diplomatic leaders endorsed the report, including former senator Chuck Hagel, U.S. President Barack Obama’s present nominee for secretary of defence.
One of the study’s strongest conclusions was that military action against Iran would not achieve the U.S.’s stated strategic objective. American policy is clear: It seeks to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, not contain an Iran armed with a small nuclear arsenal. President Obama spelled this out in an important speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington last April, when he specifically rejected containment.
The Iran Project’s study concluded that, at best, a military action might delay Iran’s program by up to four years, but that it would not prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Indeed, in the voluminous literature and commentary on Iran, there are many critics of the military option that argue a military strike would remove the political constraints on Iran’s current leaders and make Iranian nuclear weapons inevitable.
The naivety of our thinking about Iran is rooted in wishful thinking about the intentions of Iran’s leaders. If our own leaders think they can take Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, up to the brink of war in the expectation that he will blink, they are making a very big gamble. I hope they succeed, but I fear that in a showdown, the supreme leader might be prepared to trade Iran’s likely tactical defeat for political and strategic victory. He may calculate that four years is not much of a delay if he can remove international inspectors from Iran, rebuild his nuclear program, and reconnect with Iran’s huge and disaffected middle class. They might not agree with his leadership, but they would probably agree that Iran should not be attacked, and that might be enough for Iran’s hardliners to secure their revolution for another generation.
For these reasons, it is more important than ever to work on a political solution to the crisis, and the P5-plus-1 group is preparing for a new round of negotiations with Iran.
Canada can help its friends and allies succeed, but we must be realistic about what Canada could contribute. When we suspended diplomatic relations with Iran last September, we were telling the world that as far as we were concerned, the time for political engagement was over. Indeed, we were needlessly provocative when we chose to announce our decision about Iran in Russia, the country that is the strongest advocate for a political solution with Iran.
The time when Canada was perceived as a potential mediator in this region of the world is also long past, and we would not be taken seriously in the unlikely event that our government had a change of heart and aspired to the role countries like Turkey and Brazil played in 2010 when their leaders flew to Tehran and almost made a breakthrough on securing Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium.
Nevertheless, there is something important that we can do. Canada has a privileged position with Israel, and we should use it. We should join our closest allies – the United States and Britain – in warning Israel against initiating a unilateral strike against Iran. Furthermore, if a confidence-building agreement between the P5-plus-1 group and Iran emerges in the coming months, we should use our influence to convince Israel to support the international community.
War with Iran would be a colossal blunder, and Canada should do more to help its friends and allies negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis.
A version of this comment appeared on the Calgary Herald. John Mundy will be speaking on Iran at Mount Royal University in Calgary on Monday, January 21 under the sponsorship of the Canadian International Council's Calgary Branch.