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Washington’s Third Option Against a Nuclear Iran

Being a nuclear threshold state and a rouge regime is toxic: Tehran is both. Iran’s 1979 Revolution instructs its leaders to resist compromises, especially now because they expect Washington wants to cut any deal. But in case there is diplomatic stalemate, it is important for Jerusalem and Washington to delay or avoid a choice between bombing Iran and a nuclear-armed Iran.

Seeking a soft revolution via a coalition of dissidents that rejects clerical rule is a third option. A secular-oriented Iran would be less of a threat than one run by extremist clerics whose goal is to extend the Iranian Revolution to the region, Europe, and perhaps even to the world.

First published in Foreign Policy

Jay Solomon and Carol Lee, two widely respected reporters of The Wall Street Journal, wrote last week on Iran as both a nuclear threshold state and a rogue regime. On Feb. 13, Solomon and Lee said that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sent a new letter to President Obama.

That letter was in response to one sent by President Barack Obama in October 2014 that linked progress in the nuclear talks with cooperation between Washington and Tehran against the Islamic State (also called ISIS). According to these journalists, an unnamed Iranian diplomat informed them that Obama had sent a letter that raised the possibility of what I would call an American-Iranian entente cordiale to counter the Islamic if a nuclear deal is secured. Khamenei was supposedly “respectful” but noncommittal on the Obama offer to cooperate against the Islamic State.

Congressional pushback against a bad deal in the bilateral nuclear talks between Tehran and Washington plus expected failure of the multilateral Geneva talks could invigorate Hill pressure on the administration for reversion to the prior international consensus of zero right to enrich uranium gas on Iranian soil and zero breakout time before Tehran can dash for the bomb before inspectors can detect its moves. During July 2014, moreover, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exclaimed that allowing Iran to have “any enrichment will trigger an arms race in the Middle East,” a signal that she favored the zero-enrichment option.

There also is growing support for tough measures against Iran in general. They include: ballistic missile constraints and zero collusion of Washington with Tehran in the fight against the Islamic State. Anticipate the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations under the leadership of Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to hold hearings that put the heat on Team Obama for tying the nuclear talks to an informal alignment with Iran against ISIS.

Mainstream media will continue to expose the administration’s concessions to Iran, as in recent editorials of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. In the context of strong pressure from the Hill, expect to find more advocacy for the idea of regime change from within, e.g., by explicitly recognizing Iranian dissidents in a broad coalition that rejects rule by the ayatollahs.

Iran as a Nuclear Threshold State and as a Revolutionary Rogue Regime

Nuclear threshold states include Brazil and Japan. They opt for nuclear-arms restraint despite significant nuclear capabilities. Although they presentchallenges, they are not rogue states; hence, there is less concern if their capabilities lead to acquisition of the bomb. They lack sufficient political toxicity.

Rogue regimes contain the lethal elements, which make the combination with being a threshold nuclear state so dangerous. Such regimes do not play by the rules of the international game. Three such principles are state sponsorship of international terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and use of proxies to destabilize other nations. Iran is in violation of all three.

Iran uses state-sponsored terrorism and covert arms transfers to destabilize other nations near and far (Iran in IraqSaudi ArabiaBahrainMorocco,Latin America, especially Argentina, and in the United States); Iran engages in proliferation of weapons technology to third parties (Iran and North Koreaproliferate with each other — uranium enrichment forplutonium reprocessing); and Tehran employs proxies to hide its covert takeover of other nations (Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and Iran’s Hezbollah in Lebanon).

On Feb 11, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade held a hearing, “State Sponsor of Terror: The Global Threat of Iran.” During the hearing, a bipartisan group of lawmakers expressed deep concern about Tehran’s sponsorship of terrorism.

Why is the Islamic Republic of Iran such a miscreant? It is because the regime is run by ayatollahs intent on spreading the virus of its 1979 Revolution in Iran while posing as a normal state with which we can do business. As former State Department official and now Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Ray Takeyh, states in the Sept-Oct 2012 issue of The National Interest, “The Islamic Republic is different from its revolutionary counterparts in that the ideology of its state is its religion.”

Because of this central role of religious-based ideology in the authoritarian nature of Iran, traditional means of influence based on national interest calculations have little prospect of success. Hence, increasingly scholars and policymakers are paying more attention to bringing about regime change from within spearheaded by dissidents to avoid a choice between bombing Iran and living with a nuclear-armed Iran. Ivan Sascha Sheehan, a specialist at the University of Baltimore “unpacks” this soft revolution approach and applies it to Iran.

In view of these ideological imperatives, the evolution of the current nuclear talks with Iran is instructive. They began in 2004 and 2005 with the EU-Three (France, Germany, and Britain) and were reinforced by six U.N. Security Council Resolutions that denied Iran to enrich uranium. The original goal of the multilateral approach was to deny Iran a capability to develop a military nuclear option. Talks now are mostly a bilateral negotiation between Tehran and Washington over the scope of Iran’s nuclear capability. “The impact of this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it,” according to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on Jan. 29, 2015, before the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Under the chair of Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.), also expect pushback-type hearings against concessions by the administration.

Iran’s ideological stance trumps national interest bargaining and succeeds in getting recognition of a supposed “right to enrich.” Tehran weakens the resolve of multilateral proposals, leaving current talks to be about such issues as how many enrichment centrifuges Iran can possess, e.g., from some 19,000 now to about 7,000, supposedly in a preliminary “deal” negotiated by Tehran and Washington, according to Israel Times of Jan. 31.

In summary, there is no need for cooperation with Iran against the Islamic State, and it is a recipe for expanding Tehran’s revolutionary toxicity to Iraq and Syria. Rather than choosing between bombing Iran and living with a nuclear armed Iran, there is a third way: encouraging a soft revolution in Iran via a coalition of like-minded dissidents. An Iran without the Islamist taint might be in the same category of states like Brazil and Japan, whose nuclear aims are not tarnished by extremist ideology.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).