Any government in Tehran will be inclined to seek weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missile delivery options given the realities of its strategic environment. These weapons might help Iran to deter potential external threats, to achieve equality with other major regional powers armed with WMD, and to attain self-reliance in national security, given the isolating experience of arms embargoes. A more pluralist leadership in the future, however, may examine broader choices and trade-offs, and perhaps be less likely to cross key thresholds in WMD acquisition.
Download the PDF

In any event, Iran’s WMD behavior is likely to be determined by both external factors, mainly the availability of crucial components, and internal factors, including calculations of costs, risks, and benefits. Among the benefits, psychological factors, such as prestige, will play an important role. Other important factors that might well shape Iran’s WMD behavior include developments in Iraq, relations with the United States and other Gulf states, Israeli-Palestinian relations and the future price of oil.

Iran is likely to be a very different country in five to ten years. Islam will likely become less important as a governing principle and the state will become more pluralistic. This, however, will not necessarily diminish the incentives for pursuing weapons of mass destruction. A reduced role of religion in foreign policy could, however, enable Iran gradually to distance itself from Middle Eastern political struggles and to seek a more positive role that is not designed to confront the United States.
The campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan provides opportunities for cooperation between the United States and Iran. Building on this cooperation, nonproliferation initiatives would be conceived best as efforts to create new incentives and to emphasize likely disincentives that will make the costs of WMD programs prohibitive. As cooperation expands, so too will opportunities to understand better the incentives for and nature of Iran’s WMD programs and to provide appropriate responses. Attitudes toward the outside world are changing among a young population in Iran that is less hostile toward the United States and increasingly frustrated with an intolerant leadership responsible for a badly mismanaged economy and political repression.

An engagement-nonproliferation strategy should involve at least three types of parallel efforts: public, private and indirect. Public efforts should seek to create a more positive, less-threatening image of the United States among opinion leaders in Iran. Private efforts should seek to determine the purposes, nature and extent of Iran’s efforts to develop WMD and missiles and to suggest better alternatives for Iran’s security and prestige needs. Indirect efforts should involve key third countries and organizations in an attempt both to address Iran’s security concerns and to deny Iran access to critical WMD and missile technology and components. Russian policy, in particular, will continue to play a vital role in determining the extent to which Iran is able to pursue WMD options.

The new spirit of cooperation between the United States and Russia in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks provides opportunities for more effective collaboration on nonproliferation. One promising possibility is for the United States to support the Bushehr project, provided Russia and Iran agree to limitations similar to those on the North Korean nuclear reactor program. Russia might even become an appropriate storage site for spent fuel from both programs. For their part, Russian leaders could make clear that Iran’s continued access to military equipment, nuclear technology and international investment capital are all conditioned on foregoing efforts to develop a full nuclear fuel cycle and long range missiles.

Beyond the mutual benefits of cooperating on Afghanistan, the strongest incentives for Iranian cooperation with the United States are economic, particularly the prospect of foreign investment that would aid the critical oil and gas sector that constitutes more than 90 percent of the Iranian economy. Thus, the key incentives the United States could provide would be to relax sanctions initially on areas related to the terrorism/Afghan campaign, and then on investment and trade, especially for energy, and to end opposition to pipelines that could carry oil and gas through Iran from the Caspian region to the Gulf. Such incentives would be mutually beneficial because they also serve U.S. energy security, economic and geopolitical interests.

Also, on the assumption that Iran’s primary security concerns will be driven by Iraq for the foreseeable future, there are some things the United States could do to assuage these concerns. First, the United States could continue to monitor closely Iraq’s military developments, even during a post-sanctions period. Significant Iraqi movements toward an operational nuclear weapons capability will be difficult to hide. Just as the United States was willing to share sensitive intelligence data with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, the United States could consider sharing selected intelligence data about Iraq with Iran.

Because Tehran will be influenced by the costs, including associated risks, of WMD and missile development, U.S. policy also should seek to increase those costs and risks, as well as increasing the benefits of decisions to forego these systems, and to propose better alternative solutions for Iran’s security needs. Among the risks Iran faces is the prospect that Saudi Arabia and perhaps other neighbors will be compelled to develop nuclear weapons should Iran do so. Iranian leaders need to be convinced that proliferation will provoke a costly and dangerous arms race—including possible preemptive strikes. In addition, Iranian pursuit of WMD and missile capabilities risks public exposure of violations of its treaty commitments not to develop nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. However, to be effective such public exposure must provide evidence of specific acts sufficiently threatening to warrant strong international sanctions, including an embargo on oil exports and arms imports.

The United States should also encourage wide-ranging dialogues on regional security between Iran and its neighbors, ultimately including Israel. These dialogues, which might consist of military-to-military exchanges, could help persuade Tehran that conventional weapons provide a better alternative than WMD in meeting Iran’s security needs. Dialogues also should explore agreements on practical issues such as limiting missile ranges and the longer-term goal of establishing a WMD-free zone with an appropriate inspection regime. The dialogues should illustrate both the costs and the dangers of a regional arms race and suggest alternative approaches.

Nevertheless, we should not overestimate the ability of the United States to influence key national security decisions in Tehran such as those about nuclear weapons or other capabilities. Regardless of U.S. views, if Iranian leaders perceive a severe external threat, they are unlikely to back away from their pursuit of a nuclear weapons option. This makes it imperative that the intelligence community seek to identify additional vulnerabilities that could be exploited to dissuade Iranian efforts to pursue WMD and long-range missiles.

Should various efforts to prevent proliferation fail, other options need to be identified. The possibility of preemptive efforts to neutralize WMD facilities needs to be reviewed in the new context of the war on international terrorism, especially as a means of preventing terrorists from acquiring WMD. Short of covert action or the use of direct military force, the strongest leverage on Iran available to outside powers is a regime of tight and effective multinational sanctions. To be effective, the European Union and Japan in addition to the United States would need to make clear to Iran that their trade and investment are conditioned on Iran’s compliance with its nonproliferation agreements.