De-nuclearising Iran: Democratic Reforms as a Central Pillar
As Iran publicly acknowledges their uranium enrichments will reach bomb-making capacity in the coming days, the United States plays with hawkish intimidation tactics short of military action.
But how does one put the genie back in the bottle? Technological gains are hard to reverse. The 21st century has seen the sneaking nuclear development of North Korea and Iran, two pariah states, and the rest of the world scramble between the strategies of economic inclusion, economic exclusion, and militarized rhetoric as potential sticks and carrots.
Beyond these two state actors, the continued proliferation of nuclear capabilities has raised serious questions -- what if a non-state terrorist group were to get a hold of a nuclear weapon? How would the world respond? Where on the map would they fire back? There is little doubt that the continued enrichment of uranium and proliferation of military nuclear technology is a bad recipe for global security.
How should the United States approach a nuclear Iran?
The current administration's plan is an economic stranglehold accented by military overtures. When Trump took office, he announced the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), struck up at the end of the Obama administration alongside the UN Security Council states, Germany, and the EU.
The problem with sanctions is they rarely accomplish what they set out to do. Economic sanctions restrict global companies and states from doing business with the state in question. While foodstuffs, medicines, and other essential goods become rarer and rarer commodities in target countries, there is little doubt it's the common people that suffer the most. People in power are generally able to pull strings to get the goods they need.
From Venezuela to Iran, the U.S.'s hope is that the people themselves will instigate a coup against their own governments. In Iran, the Revolutionary Guard has had the country paralyzed with fear since the U.S.-backed deposition of the Shah in 1979. In Venezuela, Maduro's military has not yet broken ranks, although there is a greater likelihood that they could be swayed by the right deal or monetary incentive to do so. In North Korea, the idea of civilians organizing a coup is nearly impossible, in the ultra-Orwellian Big Brother state the Kim regime has constructed.
Would economic inclusion work better than exclusion? Would Iran give up its nuclear capabilities in exchange for re-entry into the global market? That's what the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) attempted to wager. They'd guarantee the Iranians did not continue on a weapons-making path with regular check-ups by the UN personnel. But this feel-good measure does little in the way of truly guaranteeing there is no uranium enrichment behind the curtain.
Would a military invasion quell a nuclear Iran? Potentially. But that outcome would be the result of a destroyed country, a massive commitment of American troops, and Afghanistan-style state-building initiatives. Does the U.S. have the stamina to occupy Iran, alongside neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, for decades more?
One of the biggest policy mistakes made regarding Iran is viewing it in a vacuum. Not only is Iran enmeshed in a broader regional drama, with Saudi Arabia playing opposite on the stage, but the U.S.'s wooing of Saudi Arabia is quickly appearing to situate it in more of a beckoning position. From the U.S. support of the war in Yemen to Saudi's recent call for "decisive" action against Iran, the U.S. would be wise to ensure Saudi Arabia eases, not complicates, the U.S.'s role in the Middle East.
A U.S.-sponsored war in Iran would put Saudi Arabia in prime regional standing. Is Saudi Arabia the best leader for the region? While difficult, the U.S. should consider how to balance Saudi Arabia off of Iran. Instead, the U.S. is escalating the crisis by potentially transferring nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.
The two regional hegemons last had peaceful arrangements in the late 1960's and the 1970's, before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Indeed, from a human rights standpoint, Iranians have suffered greatly since the 1979 U.S.-backed deposition of the Shah. The legacy of U.S. intervention resulted in the ultra-conservative theocratic state that is Iran today. But Iran was once on a path toward greater democratic reforms, educational gains, and women's rights. Whereas, Saudi Arabia has not yet taken serious strides to improve their own human rights record, despite sideshows put on by MBS.
Throughout this whole existential drama, the central aim from any policy standpoint should be to maximize human rights. If the U.S. is to continue to play a central security role in the Middle East, it's clear the architecture needs to be both democratic and educational. Most Iranians want closer ties with the U.S., and democratic reforms would likely mean the de-militarization of both the internal and external apparatus of the state.
Can the U.S. bomb Iran into democracy? The answer is no. We've seen it tried before. It doesn't work. The only deal the West should focus on coercing Iran into is a quick ticket to regional elections in a parliamentary system. For both men and women. It'd be tricky, but using the U.N. as a framework could work.
Sanctions on Iran and silence on Saudi Arabia aren't the answers to these conflicts. Especially in the long-run, an undemocratic Saudi Arabia is nothing more than a fair-weather-friend to the West.
The coming days, weeks, and months could see an escalation of this conflict. The way the U.S. and other states engage with the proliferation of nuclear weapons will define much of 21st century security. With technology, it's only a matter of time that more states, and even non-state actors, acquire the means to produce nuclear capabilities. At present, the two key sticks used to deter this are economic exclusion and the threat of war. A democratic and human rights based approach are the central pillars analysts ought to focus on to guarantee stability and an aversion to nuclear programs in the long-run.