Some analysts have attributed the recent downing
of a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel high-altitude reconnaissance drone in Iran to
that nation's increasingly sophisticated capability to launch cyber
attacks. Others have dismissed the idea that Iran was capable of
bringing down an RQ-170, arguing that Iranian air defenses do not have
the capability to track an aircraft with radar-evading technology.
Either way, the incident clearly demonstrates American concerns
regarding Iran's nuclear capacity, as the drone was likely sent over
Iranian territory to spy on its nuclear program.
I find the argument that Iran is engaged in developing a nuclear
weapons program credible. I am also convinced that Iran will not test a
device, but rather will acquire the capability to produce a weapon
quickly if its strategic environment deteriorates to such an extent that
it feels it must.
I am further convinced that an Israeli or American strike or strikes
against its nuclear facilities would put Iran's nuclear program back by a
few years but would not be able to terminate it. In fact, such strikes
would provide Tehran with the legitimacy to go ahead and acquire nuclear
weapons capability in full view of the world and with international
It is time for world leaders to recognize the inevitability of Iran
acquiring nuclear weapons capability, even if it remains untested, with
Tehran following the policy and adopting the rhetoric of deliberate
ambiguity. Moreover, the major powers that act as the self-appointed
guardians of the current international nuclear order need to recognize
that treaties and other legal documents are not the primary determinants
when it comes to state decisions regarding acquisition of nuclear
capability. It is a country's strategic environment that principally
determines such a decision.
Iran's strategic environment is such that it makes the decision by
Iran's policy makers to acquire nuclear weapons appear rational both to
themselves and to the wider Iranian public. This is why leading
opposition figures are as opposed to suspending uranium enrichment as
regime hard-liners. The foremost opposition presidential candidate,
Mir-Hossein Moussavi, in an interview with the Financial Times in the
run-up to the elections in 2009, stated categorically: "No one in Iran would accept suspension."
The strategic rationality of such a policy was recognized in a candid
moment by none other than Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak.
In an appearance on "Charlie Rose" last month, Barak was asked
whether he would want to acquire nuclear weapons if he were an Iranian
government minister. Barak responded
very candidly: "Probably, probably. I know it's not -- I mean I don't
delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel. They look
around, they see the Indians are nuclear, the Chinese are nuclear,
Pakistan is nuclear, not to mention the Russians."
While downplaying the Israeli nuclear weapons capability, Barak
neglected to mention that Iran's policy makers perceive the American
nuclear and non-nuclear armada in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea
as the greatest threat to their security.
All this obviously makes for a dangerous strategic environment as far
as Tehran is concerned, regardless of the nature of the Iranian regime.
The American decision to invade non-nuclear Iraq while desisting from
militarily confronting a nuclear North Korea surely tells Iran's rulers
that even rudimentary nuclear capability can deter potential American
and allied designs to attack Iran, whether to topple its regime or
impair its nuclear capacity.
Given the near-certainty that Iran is launched on an irreversible
course for nuclear weapons capacity, there are only two strategies that
can be used -- if not to stop the nuclear program, then at least to make
it less threatening to American interests. The first is for the United
States to actively promote the idea of a nuclear weapon-free zone (NWFZ)
for the Middle East that would include both Israel and Iran. Iran has
supported calls for a NWFZ for several years, most recently at a Nuclear
Disarmament Conference it hosted in April 2010, as long as it included
Israel as well as Iran.
However, promoting a NWFZ in the Middle East does not appear
realistic for the United States in the short run because Israel is
stubbornly opposed to it before a permanent solution is found to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, domestic constraints,
including a highly pro-Israel Congress, would not allow the U.S.
administration to seriously pursue this course.
The other option is to accept Iran's status as a near-nuclear power
and engage it in substantive discussions about the future architecture
of regional security in the broader Middle East, and more specifically
in the Persian Gulf, where Iran is the indispensable power. This would
entail a drastic revision of the current American strategy of isolating
and quarantining Iran, and replacing it with one that accommodates
Iran's regional aspirations and attempts to find areas of convergence
rather than confrontation with Tehran. The American approach to India in
the 1990s and the 2000s could form the model for such a policy.
Such a change of course is likely to pose a major but not insuperable
challenge to American policy makers, given the current atmosphere of
mutual hostility surrounding Washington's relations with Tehran. It
would require creative diplomacy on the part of the White House and the
State Department, including signaling Iran that the United States
recognizes its pre-eminent status in the Persian Gulf region (much as
Washington did with India in South Asia) and the legitimate role that
goes with it.
It will also mean reducing the paranoia currently afflicting Iran's
policy makers because of their fear of encirclement by nuclear powers.
If this means that the international community has to learn to live with
a near-nuclear Iran, then this is the price it must be willing to pay
for stability and security in this crucial region.
As recent experience has demonstrated, economic sanctions and
military threats are only likely to stiffen the Iranian resolve to
acquire nuclear weapons as well as to act as the "spoiler" not only in
the energy-rich Persian Gulf but also in the strategically important
broader Middle East region. Furthermore, American hostility toward Iran
reinforces the domestic legitimacy of the Iranian regime and discredits
the democratic opposition, an outcome that is not in the long-term
interest of the United States.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of
International Relations at Michigan State University and Adjunct Scholar
at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
This article was published by CNN.com on December 14, 2011. Read it here.