I’ve been thinking a lot about the “inevitability assumption” lately. There is a fundamental problem associated with the assumption that Iran is inevitably going to acquire a nuclear weapon.
Back in December, Jim Walsh, Thomas Pickering, and William Luers hit the problem on the head:
This “inevitability assumption” has been a common belief in the nuclear age, and yet, it has repeatedly turned out to be wrong. The examples include Egypt, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The assumption is tantamount to relying on a worst-case scenario, which in turn has the effect of truncating the list of potential policy options. Worse yet, an assumption that Iran is going nuclear can lead decision-makers to miss the signals and signs when a negotiated settlement is actually possible.
Today, U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Glyn Davies told Christiane Amanpour that “the world’s patience with Iran is running out. ‘It’s becoming quite clear that they’re preserving at least the option of developing a nuclear program. And we want all nations of the world to take note of this and draw the right conclusion.’”
I can only assume the conclusion he speaks of is that Iran is working to build, and will one day acquire, a nuclear weapon. As a result of this conclusion, the U.S. is once again focusing narrowly on sanctions, while others push for more decisive action. Ultimately, though, any and all of these tactics are aimed at preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. Not the option of a weapon; not the desire for a weapon; but a fully capable nuclear arsenal able to wipe out… well, anyone at all.
Iran does not currently have this ability…
Today, Zbigniew Brzezinski offered his own policy recommendation to the Wall Street Journal:
Try to stop Iran’s nuclear program, and make Tehran pay a price if it keeps pursuing it, but don’t count too much on sanctions; offer a robust American defense umbrella to protect friends in the region if Iran crosses the nuclear threshold; give rhetorical support to Iran’s opposition while accepting America’s limited ability to help it; eschew thought of a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities; and keep talking to Tehran.
Above all: Play the long game, because time, demographics and generational change aren’t on the side of the current regime.
Yes, the current regime is, quite clearly, antagonistic – but there is a small possibility that it does not seek a nuclear weapon. Regardless, there is a very real possibility that the current regime’s goals will not matter.
“This is a country with a growing urban middle class, a country with fairly high access to higher education, a country where women play a great role in the professions,” says Brzezinski, “So it is a country which I think, basically, objectively is capable of moving the way Turkey has moved.”
Any sanctions imposed on Iran must be very carefully constructed, so as not to undermine any progress that might be made by the Iranian opposition, a force that has the ability to shape Iran’s future. Further, any argument for the use of force in Iran is premature. To focus myopically on the inevitability of an Iranian nuclear weapon is a mistake, and will only lead to disaster.