Ray Takeyh

Playing power politics with Iran

By Ray Takeyh
December 17, 2008
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IN THE MIDST of the global financial crisis, Western politicians have found a ray of light, namely that reduced oil prices will compel Iran to come to terms with the international community on its nuclear infractions. Such perceptions misread Iran's history and the mindset of Tehran's current rulers.

The West confronts an Iranian regime that has reconceptualized its national interests - choosing strategic gain over economic growth. Neither economic distress nor additional sanctions are likely to alter Tehran's course. The most effective means of addressing Iran's proliferation tendencies is to alter its strategic calculus.

On the surface, the theocracy's challenge is daunting. The inflation rate stands at 30 percent, while approximately 14 million Iranians live below the poverty level. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's populist policies have also taken their toll, as he has mismanaged the economy and raided the oil stabilization fund designed to cushion the state from periods of price fluctuation. Still, Iran's leaders remain more sensitive to their strategic environment than economic predicament. The displacement of Iran's historical nemeses in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the decline of America's influence in the Middle East have generated a recognition that it is a propitious time for the Islamic Republic to claim that mantle of regional leadership. Iran has a rare historical opportunity to emerge as the pivotal power in the Persian Gulf, a role that Iran's monarchs and mullahs have aspired to for decades.

In its path of self-aggrandizement, Iran must be prepared to pay a price. The powerful head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, stressed this point, noting, "We have to have perseverance. We will tolerate sanctions and enmities and continue with our Islamic stance."

However misguided this path may be, Iran's reactionary rulers are prepared to hunker down and tolerate the economic consequences of their determinations.

The most persuasive means of altering Iran's decision-making must be anchored in power, not commerce. The international community needs to create a situation whereby Iran's leadership sees strategic benefits in abiding by international norms.

This would entail a bold initiative by Washington and the world's major powers to signal to Tehran that its ambitions for regional preeminence are best achieved through cooperation rather than confrontation. The United States would be open to negotiating new regional security architecture with Iran that takes into account its concerns and aspirations. As part of such policy, America would not necessarily obstruct the projection of Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf and would be open to a more helpful relationship in the stabilization of Iraq. In return, Iran would restrain its nuclear program within the confines of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments, curtail its lethal assistance to Hezbollah and militant Palestinian forces, and accept the legitimacy of the Gulf emirates.

Alternatively, the United States could make a commitment to pressure and ostracize the Islamic Republic. Whatever American fortunes in Iraq may be, the United States still has the capacity to deploy significant naval power on Iran's periphery. America's Gulf Arab allies may be tentative and fickle, but under an augmented US umbrella they can be made to take measurable steps in confronting Tehran.

As far as Iran's vaunted nuclear program is concerned, Washington can take a page out of its Cold War playbook and stress that any first-use or transference of nuclear weapons by Iran would constitute a direct threat against the United States. Although the international community may not be able to stop the truculent theocracy from crossing the nuclear threshold, it still has the capacity to negate the impact of Iran's bomb. In this scenario, Khamenei should be made to know that he stands to rule a country that is isolated in its immediate neighborhood and at loggerheads with the United States.

Several US administrations have tried, and failed, to achieve Iran's strategic acquiescence by exploiting its economic vulnerabilities. It is time to approach the Iranian conundrum from a power-politics perspective. The Islamic Republic can be offered an opportunity to emerge as a leading regional state so long as it tempers its nuclear ambitions and restrains its destructive regional policies. An Iran that continues to violate its international obligations faces the prospect of isolation and conflict.

Such a diplomatic move may finally divide the hard-line rulers of Iran and lead the Supreme Leader to contain his bombastic president.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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