Webcast Recap

Dr. Shahram Chubin opened with the observation that the broad range of opinions voiced in the United States about how to address Iran's nuclear program—with options ranging from bombing facilities to promoting regime change through support of the "green" movement, and from imposing harsher economic sanctions to offering additional incentives—reflect deep uncertainties about Iran.

The United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran are now entering their fourth decade of deep estrangement. The nuclear issue is embedded in "a legacy of distrust." That distrust of Iran's nuclear intentions poisons discussions about how to constrain Iran's nuclear capabilities.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Chubin stated, divisions within Iran on the nuclear issue have existed since the revolution. To the extent there is a national consensus, it does not go beyond the broad, trite slogan of a "right to technology." Differences have emerged not about that general right, but rather about what price Iran is willing to pay for maintaining opacity about its nuclear capabilities and intentions.

Chubin argued that the nuclear debate is a surrogate for a more fundamental question: how should Iran relate to the international community? The internal political divide is between those who seek a larger role for Iran in the international community as a "normal state," and hard-liners who emphasize revolutionary values and would seek a nuclear capability as an "equalizer" for Iran's confrontation with the United States and the West. The hard-liners view U.S. efforts to constrain the nuclear program as the opening wedge in a broader strategy to bring about regime change.

Recent events—the October 2009 Geneva offer on the nuclear issue in tandem with the Iranian regime's continuing suppression of domestic dissent—raise important questions: Is the regime unable to make decisions? With the purging of moderates, is the regime more monolithic and thus more determined to bear the costs of nuclear opacity? Or is the regime more distracted while it struggles to preserve the system?

For the United States, the Iran crisis is playing out against the backdrop of Iraq. That precedent has understandably raised the intelligence bar: in 1991, the U.S. administration underestimated Iraqi capabilities, while, in 2003, it overestimated them. In the case of Iran, no one knows whether the nuclear clock is ticking faster than the societal change clock. U.S. policy, which now under President Obama includes direct diplomatic engagement, seeks to block further Iranian uranium enrichment and negotiate limits on the program. Yet the regime has shown no signs of being willing to accept either meaningful suspension or highly intrusive inspections. According to Chubin, the Tehran regime's likely goal is to buy time and reduce pressures for sanctions. Sanctions are an attractive policy tool for the United States because it falls midway between the use of force and toothless protests. But the impact is difficult to assess – that is, whether sanctions rally support for or turn the public against the regime.

Chubin concluded that the crux of the nuclear problem with Iran remains the regime itself—especially those now ascendant hard-liners who resist its normalization with the international community.

Robert Litwak, International Security Studies