Late last week, Senators Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, and Robert Casey introduced a resolution (not a law but a "sense of the senate" resolution) that is unnecessarily restrictive on Iran's nuclear program. It will alienate ordinary Iranians who would otherwise be supporters of U.S. policy.
The relevant distinction in this debate is between the capability to build a nuclear weapon and the actual construction of such a weapon. Obama has talked repeatedly about Iran's obtaining a nuclear weapon, and the majority of the most fearful scenarios involve the actual creation of a device. However, the latest resolution from the Senate does not talk about a nuclear Iran, but only a nuclear-capable Iran. Robert Wright's great article puts it this way, "This resolution speaks instead of a "nuclear weapons capability." In other words, Iran shouldn't be allowed to get to a point where, should it decide to produce a nuclear weapon, it would have the wherewithal to do so."
In practice, the capability to produce a nuclear weapon refers to the ability to enrich uranium which can result from having a nuclear power infrastructure. The right to attain nuclear power is enshrined in the NPT. Thinking generally, it makes sense that this should be a right. All countries should have the right to power their countries in the best way for them.
Of course, thinking specifically about Iran makes people worry about this sensible commitment because of what they will do with it. Shouldn't we just prevent them from having a nuclear capability and be on the safe side?
There are two costs to this very hard-line policy. One is that it justifies very open-ended military operations. When will Iran no longer have the capability to produce nuclear weapons? When it would take them two years to develop a weapon, or five years?
Second is that we would garner more support from the Iranian people by allowing them to have nuclear power, and deny them nuclear weapons through an inspection regime. This poll in 2010 is revealing. 55% of Iranians want to develop only nuclear power (and not develop nuclear weapons, an encouraging fact in its own right), but 65% would be willing to only develop nuclear power in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions. This means that pursuing a path of sanctions gives the U.S. leverage with an additional 7 million Iranians, casting the U.S. in a favorable light in the minds of about 45 million Iranians. On the other hand, action to deny the Iranian people nuclear energy full stop would lose the U.S. support of a majority of Iranians. Only 3%, or 2 million would agree with our policy position.
Since a long-term solution to Iran's government must involve it's people (see: Egypt), we would be wise to keep building support among its citizens. We push for an aggressive sanctions regime and make it clear that we would remove it in exchange for rigorous inspections. Not only would ordinary Iranians support this bargain, but we would be building for a long-term success in the region.
Photo Credit: Paul J. Everett