As Iran proceeds ahead with its nuclear program, its tensions with the United States continue to heighten over concerns that it is secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.
Israelis view a nuclear?armed Iran as an existential threat and U.S. officials are rightly concerned that nuclear weapons would give Iran coercive power over Iraq and its Arab Gulf neighbours, which are critical energy suppliers to the U.S. and its allies.
One of Iran’s ostensible reasons for wanting to develop a nuclear program is to transition to an alternative source of electricity for domestic consumption. This would purportedly free up oil and natural gas reserves for export at a higher price on the global market rather than remaining allocated to Iran’s highly subsidized domestic market.
Iran’s apparent motive for pursuing a nuclear weapons capability would be to deter foreign aggression, which it has historically had cause to be concerned with because of its coveted energy resources. The question remains whether Iranian leaders would exploit this capability to pursue their own expansionist foreign policy agenda.
There is a significant possibility that as with Iraq, U.S. political leaders could decide that the risks of inaction are too high to give a hostile and unpredictable Iranian government the benefit of the doubt.
Given the political obstacles U.S. diplomats have faced building support for sanctions that are constricting enough to dissuade Iran from its current course, U.S. or Israeli leaders might eventually feel that they are left with no choice but to attempt a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities or perhaps even pursue regime change by covert or overt means.
An Alternative Course of Action
Considering the doubtful prospect of an effective sanctions regime and the unpredictable consequences of a military strike or covert action, the Obama administration should consider offering the Iranian government an opportunity for rapprochement in the form of renewable energy technology and financial incentives to help it achieve its ostensible goals.
Iran has abundant geothermal, solar, hydroelectric and wind energy resources that could help it meet its domestic electricity demand without presenting an inherent threat to the international community. This would require substantial investment but Iranian leaders might be prepared to consider such an alternative if the U.S. and other UN Security Council states were prepared to offer it attractive financing options.
Such an initiative would demonstrate to Iran that the United States acknowledges its legitimate energy and national security interests and is willing to take meaningful steps to support its peaceful aspirations and integration into the international community in return for its abandonment of its nuclear program.
Carrots and Sticks
Thus far the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran has consisted of either threatening to add or expressing willingness to withdraw sticks rather than offering carrots that Iran might find attractive enough to seriously consider. The current approach does not show signs of weakening Iran’s political resolve and is not likely to without significantly harsher multilateral sanctions, which do not appear forthcoming.
Logically therefore, the United States is left with few options. One is to continue pressing for harsher sanctions in the hope that internal economic pressures will lead to political concessions, a coup or popular overthrow of the Iranian government. In the event that the United States or Israel determines that sanctions have run their course, either country may determine to pursue covert or overt military action against Iranian nuclear targets or the government itself.
Such a course of action would have significant potential to lead to full?scale military conflict, which would almost certainly be much bloodier and costlier than U.S.military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An alternative option is to pursue rapprochement with Iran by offering to assist it in meeting its energy needs through renewable projects in exchange for key security concessions.
Detractors will claim that this would constitute appeasement of a hostile regime but if a carrot?based approach fails the United States will have lost nothing. On the contrary, it will have strengthened its diplomatic position against the Iranian government, enabling it to build support for a more coercive approach.
Given the stakes, it is imperative to exhaust all options while there is still time.
By. Juan Cole
Juan runs the popular geopolitics blog Informed Comment where he provides an independent and informed perspective on Middle Eastern and American politics.