GUEST CONTRIBUTOR AT SAIS WASHINGTON
Are Iran’s intentions in the ongoing nuclear negotiations sincere? Popular analyses of Iran’s nuclear motivations have unduly emphasized its leaders’ Shi’a millenarianism or a supposed desire to bomb Israel (home to the third most important city in Islam and over one million Muslims). If one assumes Iran behaves rationally, its intentions become clear: Iran is ready to give up its nuclear program because it doesn’t need one. No longer needed to deter threats of invasion, the program is now just a costly liability.
For all but the last three years, Iran faced the threat of a devastating conventional attack on one or multiple fronts. Tehran first perceived an existential threat from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and later from the US invasions of its neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran has used its alleged nuclear weapons program as a deterrent against these overwhelming threats.
Saddam Hussein invaded the Islamic Republic shortly after its inception. The ensuing eight years of war resulted in chemical attacks, hundreds of thousands of Iranian casualties, and half a trillion dollars in damage. Over the next decade Hussein continued to threaten his neighbors (Kuwait) and suggested (disingenuously, as it turned out) that Iraq was seeking its own nuclear weapon.
The US neutralized the Iraqi threat to Iran in 2003, but the US military represented an even more powerful adversary than Iraq. The US had already demonstrated its willingness to invade members of the “Axis of Evil” and in 2001 had established a presence in Afghanistan, Iran’s neighbor. Furthermore, the enduring US presence in the Persian Gulf strengthened to support these efforts. American military forces imposingly surrounded Iran on three sides for nearly a decade.
From Tehran’s perspective, a nuclear weapons program made strategic sense. A nuclear weapon would overcome Iran’s conventional disadvantage vis-à-vis the US, deterring a possible invasion.
This security calculus has changed. The past three years of US foreign policy shifts have dramatically improved Iran’s security situation, removing the need for a nuclear deterrent. The US withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and Tehran now has unrestricted influence over Baghdad’s Shiite politicians. The American drawdown in Afghanistan is imminent. President Barack Obama has demonstrated no interest in overseas invasions, and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has cautioned against future land wars in the Middle East.
Iran is willing to give up its nuclear program because, for the first time in its history, it no longer needs to deter invasion. Its willingness to negotiate coincides with the diminishing of its immediate threats. Threats farther afield, like Israel, alone do not pose an existential challenge and therefore do not necessitate a nuclear deterrent. The nature of warfare in the Middle East now favors proxy wars and operating militias, which plays to Iran’s strengths.
Giving up the nuclear weapons program and its reduced benefits in exchange for relaxation of international sanction regimes is an easy trade for Tehran. Confident in Iran’s intentions, the US should see through the negotiations.