Persian Pitfalls

March 14, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on March 14, 2008.

A poll of Iranian public opinion released in mid‐​March by Terror Free Tomorrow and D3 Systems highlights both problems and opportunities for U.S. policy toward Iran. Much of the American news media focused on one result: that a majority of Iranians wanted to directly elect their country’s supreme leader (currently the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and be able to replace that person in a subsequent election. That is an interesting and significant revelation, since it suggests widespread public support for expanded democracy. But even more important were the results concerning Iranian opinion on nuclear matters and relations with the United States.

On the positive side, there appears to be strong sentiment for engaging the United States and establishing a more normal relationship. Some 71 percent of respondents favored working with Washington to help resolve the Iraq war, while a mere 21 percent opposed such cooperation. Even more encouraging, 61 percent endorsed “full, unconditional negotiations” between the United States and the Iranian government on an array of issues. Only 28 percent rejected such diplomacy. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other hardliners in Tehran who favor continuing the cold war with Washington have meager public support for their position.

In other venues, I have suggested offering a “grand bargain” to Iran. This would consist of holding out the carrot of lifting economic sanctions and establishing normal political and diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran in exchange for Iran’s agreement to put its embryonic nuclear program under rigorous international safeguards to prevent the diversion of fissile material into weapons production. The poll responses indicate that such a proposal might be received favorably by the bulk of the Iranian people.

At the same time, though, it is apparent that Washington’s current strategy of compelling Iran to halt uranium enrichment runs up against opposition from the Iranian public as well as the government in Tehran. A peaceful nuclear program has overwhelming popular support. Indeed, 86 percent of respondents would like to have U.S. assistance to advance such a program.

More startling — and troubling — is that a majority of Iranians (51 percent) embrace the goal of developing nuclear weapons. Only 39 percent oppose that objective, despite the financial drain and the certainty of international criticism and multilateral economic sanctions. That result indicates that Washington’s quarrel on the issue of nuclear weapons is not merely with the mullahs, but with a majority of the Iranian people.

Those results probably should not come as a great surprise. The mastery of nuclear technology is a matter of national pride to most Iranians, and the pursuit of a nuclear program long predates the Islamic revolution in 1979. Indeed, it was a major policy objective of the Shah of Iran as far back as the mid‐​1960s. And the Shah’s program was not confined to the peaceful uses of atomic energy.

The goal of acquiring a nuclear arsenal was, and remains, more controversial among Iranians, but it, too, has significant support. Although that is not a welcome development for the nonproliferation policy of the United States and the other major powers in the international system, it is a reality that must be faced. From Iran’s standpoint, acquiring a nuclear arsenal has considerable strategic logic. Iran is located in a dangerous neighborhood that already has multiple nuclear‐​weapons states — Pakistan, India, Russia, and Israel. It is not irrational for Iranians to conclude that their country needs a deterrent too.

The task for U.S. policymakers is to craft a policy that has a reasonable prospect of advancing American interests in the region. Whether Washington likes it or not, Iran is a major regional player, and Iranian cooperation will be needed if there is to be progress regarding Iraq, Afghanistan and a host of other problems. If the United States adopts a strategy of engagement, there are indications that the Iranian public might prod its government to reciprocate. If the mullahs resisted that sentiment, they would find themselves evermore isolated politically.

Obstacles to progress on the nuclear front are substantially greater. On that issue, U.S. officials need a healthy injection of realism. The notion of getting Iran to abandon its nuclear program is a nonstarter, given the overwhelming public mandate to master that technology. Even getting Tehran to abandon its apparent quest for nuclear weapons will not be easy, given both public sentiment and strategic calculations. There is certainly no hope of achieving that objective unless Washington is prepared to offer the full normalization of diplomatic and economic relations.

The poll results confirm that the Iranian people want to end their country’s estrangement from the United States. But the results also confirm that they want their country to be treated as a respected, first‐​class power with respect to the nuclear issue and Iran’s overall position in the region. It remains to be seen whether U.S. leaders have the wisdom and subtlety needed to conduct an effective policy within those constraints. The only alternative to a more supple diplomacy, though, is continued confrontation and crisis. That situation benefits no one.

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