As the United Nations opens the 61st session of its General Assembly this week, it is apparent that the international community has finally agreed to take seriously Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The assembly’s agenda is devoted to reaching common ground on how best to deal with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime and its quest for nuclear weapons. While some advocate diplomatic pressure, others dialogue and still others military action, each party privy to this debate has had an incredibly hard time trying to figure out what course of action Ahmadinejad intends to take.
In U.S. foreign policy circles, two principal positions in this debate have been articulated, each representing a different theory of international relations. But a proper response to the threat Iran poses should be found somewhere in between the pessimism of one and the optimism of the other.
On one side, there are those — many of whom would be considered “neo-conservatives” — who take Ahmadinejad’s public statements on Islam, U.S. foreign policy and Israel at face value and who believe that when he says he is dedicated to wiping Israel off the map that this is exactly what he means and intends to do. This camp takes seriously Ahmadinejad’s self-proclaimed religiosity, reading his public statements as proof of an ideological commitment to furthering the Shiite cause throughout the Middle East at whatever price, rather than as the public appeals of a demagogue to a religious populace. And, this side believes, since Ahmadinejad’s commitment to confrontation with Israel and the West is rooted in religious conviction, there is no rational, diplomatic means to deal with him. Military action is the only viable option.
On the other side, there are those who believe that Ahmadinejad, like most politicians, is essentially rational, and that he will not acquire and use nuclear weapons when this would all but guarantee the destruction of his regime and the annihilation of Iran. This camp — roughly, foreign policy “realists” — believes that even the claims of religion are not strong enough to motivate a leader to pursue policies obviously not in the interests of his state. This camp argues that strong diplomatic pressure and dialogue with Ahmadinejad should be able to convince him that the pursuit of nuclear weapons is ultimately not in Iran’s interests. Thus, despite his apparent conviction of being divinely ordained to do battle with the enemies of Islam throughout the world, Ahmadinejad will eventually give up his program if we pursue diplomacy calmly and rationally.
Somewhere in between these two extremes lies a position much closer to reality. This position dismisses the neo-conservative insistence that Ahmadinejad’s religiosity would drive him to suicidal military conflict, while also distancing itself from the realist’s optimism that straighforward diplomatic efforts will work. It takes the form of a hypothetical question: What if Ahmadinejad, even as a rational actor who would theoretically respond to diplomatic carrots and sticks, simply cannot be convinced that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is not in Iran’s favor? What if he is either so foolish or so self-confident that he believes he can get away with it?
If so, there remain two things the international community must do to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. First, it must think of new ways to convince Iran that the price it will pay by violating international nonproliferation treaties really is much higher than the potential benefit of a nuclear arsenal. On the one hand, this would require a revamped and more thorough program of sanctions. On the other, it would require abandoning the rhetoric of regime change and military preemption; the more the Iranian government comes to believe it will be attacked or invaded, the more it will see its survival as dependent upon the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Second, Ahmadinejad cannot be allowed to believe that the West, riddled with internal divisions and feelings of distrust, will sit back and watch while he pursues his nuclear program. But if sanctions prove ineffectual due to Russia’s and China’s intransigence, the only threat that may carry any weight will be that of military action. Not only would the danger of such action be enormous, but, as we have seen, even the threat of a military operation will make nuclear weapons appear all the more attractive to the regime. Thus, the international community must think of a new way to frighten Iran, with something stronger than sanctions but weaker than direct military action.
Only by refusing to fall prey to the Scylla of apocalyptic neo-conservatism and the Charybdis of naive optimism can we hope to find any way out of this puzzle. Let us hope Ahmadinejad’s government really is several years away from the bomb. It will take some time for us to clean out our own from the extremists that fill its ranks and to replace them with minds equipped for the task.
James Martin is a senior in Silliman College.