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Debating a Nuclear Iran

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that his country has the right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes.
Getty Images
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that his country has the right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it can be argued, directs a repressive regime and dreams of leading the forces of radical Islam in an anti-American jihad. If the United States and its allies permit his country to develop nuclear weapons, jihadists elsewhere may conclude that they, too, will pay no penalty for pursuing their radical agenda.

It can also be said that Ahmadinejad is benefiting politically from his confrontation with America, heightening his standing both at home and abroad at a time when the image of the United States has suffered grievously in the Muslim world. If the United States threatens Iran with war or actually bombs its nuclear facilities, it may only strengthen Ahmadinejad and other radical elements in Iran, further destabilize the Middle East, and heighten the danger to the United States and its allies.

Few foreign policy challenges today are more vexing than the issue of how to deal with the prospect of a nuclear Iran, which made the question ideal for the first of a series of Oxford-style debates, called Intelligence Squared U.S.. The series, produced in New York City by WNYC, is based on the successful Intelligence Squared program which began in London in 2002.

The first U.S. debate, held Sept. 27 and moderated by Robert Siegel, brought together six expert analysts to consider both sides of the proposition, "We must tolerate a nuclear Iran."

In a sign of the complexity of the policy challenges, the panelists often agreed on key premises about the situation in Iran only to disagree on their significance. There was no disputing that a nuclear Iran would be a menace, nor that a diplomatic solution to the problem would be preferable to a military solution. Opinions varied, however, among the panelists over whether diplomatic approaches would work without a threat to use military force.

"Voting for the motion does not mean doing nothing, or turning the other cheek to Iran," argued George Perkovich, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. "Voting for the motion means that another war will not solve this problem, and that a robust, extremely tough strategy of deterrence and containment would be the most effective way to keep a nuclear Iran from threatening the United States and its friends."

Opposing the motion, The Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and Patrick Clawson of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy insisted that diplomacy with Iran would be ineffective without a credible threat.

"George says, 'We should press them, press them.' How the heck are you going to press them, if you say at the end of the day that what we're prepared to do is to tolerate it?" Clawson said.

"They're not going to be interested in being friends," Kristol said. "You should all vote 'No' just to help diplomacy along."

There was agreement among the panelists as well that the intensified rivalry between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam has raised the stakes for Iran, whose Shiite leaders have been bolstered by the defeat of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime in Iraq and by the political advance of the Shiite-led Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.

"This is a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran for hegemony in the Middle East," argued Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group, who favored the motion that a nuclear Iran may need to be tolerated. Bombing Iran, Sadjadpour insisted, would stir Muslim anger, leading to a resurgent Hezbollah and a destabilized Iraq.

Sanam Vakil of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, said that Ahmadinejad "dreams of becoming a war president," sensing it would strengthen his political position among the Iraqi people.

Patrick Clawson, opposing the motion, likewise noted that Ahmadinejad sees himself in a world war and expects to emerge victorious from it. But for Clawson and his allies on the panel, that notion only underscored how dangerous the Iranian leader is and how important it is for the United States to keep him from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Reuel Marc Gerecht and Kristol both argued that Iran, unlike the Soviet Union, China, or other nuclear powers, has a history of supporting terrorist groups.

"Do you want to give individuals who run what I would call a more sophisticated version of bin Ladenism, do you want to let them have the nuke?" asked Gerecht, pointing out that nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical jihadist regime would be "their safeguard, their protection" against U.S. retaliation.

But is military action in Iran even feasible? Perkovich and Sadjadpour, arguing for the debate motion, said airstrikes would have only limited effectiveness against Iranian nuclear facilities, many of which may be hidden, and would inevitably produce numerous civilian casualties. Moreover, U.S. military forces are already stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Patrick Clawson disagreed.

"This would be the Navy and the Air Force, which are not overly committed in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said. "It would be quite a doable thing to destroy the key nodes in Iran's nuclear program.... There are some key nodes without which that program cannot function, and it would take a number of years to rebuild."

Nevertheless, the nodes could be rebuilt, Sadjadpour countered, and in the meantime, radical elements in the Iranian government would be reinforced as a result of the United States attacking the country.

"If we bomb Iran," he said, "we're going to prolong the life of this regime I would argue two, three, maybe four decades," an assessment he shared with Vakil, who has recently carried out research in Iran.

"We're making [Ahmadinejad] stronger every day by paying attention to him," Vakil said. "If we bomb the country, he will be propelled even more."

For his part, Gerecht did not dispute that military action against Iran might put moderates there in a difficult position.

"That's really not the issue," he said. "What matters is the people at the top....You do not want people like that who believe they represent God on earth... to have nuclear weapons."

A pre-debate tally of 219 members of the audience showed a broad majority — 103 — opposing the motion, while 58 favored it. The rest were unsure. A second count after the debate showed the "opposed" side still winning with 116 votes. But those in favor of the motion managed to increase their count to 82, having won over a larger share of the initially undecided audience members.

The Intelligence Squared U.S. series will continue on Oct. 18 (and will be broadcast on NPR member stations starting Oct. 23), with a panel debating the motion, "Freedom of expression must include the license to offend."

The debate series is underwritten by the Rosenkranz Foundation. "We're trying to raise the level of public discourse in American life," Robert Rosenkranz said in introducing the debate program. The goal of the program, he said, is for participants and spectators to come away from a debate "with the recognition that there is an intellectually respectable position on the other side."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.