"Forget the Nukes" is the provocative title of Robert Kagan's Wash. Post column today. Never mind the "secret" uranium enrichment facility, never mind the long-range missile test; the main issue, he says, should be capitalizing on the regime's weakness by quickly applying "crippling" sanctions. This will give heart to the opposition, whose leadership "is engaged in a struggle to the death with the regime," and "might" -- I emphasize his use of might -- lead the regime to fall. At least the chance of that happening is greater than the chance that the current Iranian regime "will give up its nuclear program voluntarily," he contends.
Hmm. Let's ponder this for a sec. Just because the leadership of the Iranian opposition is locked in a death struggle with the regime does not mean the opposition as a whole is so committed. I have great admiration for the courage and determination displayed by those who demonstrated in June against the fraudulent elections. But I don't know enough about the workings of the Iranian opposition or its composition or internal dynamics to say whether sanctions will give it the boost Kagan supposes. Has there been a broad clamor within the opposition for the imposition of sanctions on the regime? If there has been, Kagan doesn't mention it.
In the column's last paragraph, Kagan makes another bet. "Americans have a fundamental strategic interest in seeing a change of leadership in Iran." Why? Because "[t]here is good reason to believe that a democratic Iran might forgo a nuclear weapon...or at least be more amenable to serious negotiations." And even if it does go nuclear, a democratic nuclear Iran will be far less dangerous than an autocratic-theocratic nuclear Iran, he maintains.
Indeed? Is this the same Robert Kagan who has been writing about the return of old-fashioned great-power politics in the twenty-first century? Interests and power rule, the hard-headed calculations of geopolitical advantage drive policy -- isn't that the message he's been delivering lately? Now, in this column, a slightly different tone seems to creep in -- domestic politics matters, what political scientists call (in typically sterile fashion) "regime type" counts for something. Of course, it's true the two positions are not in direct or logical contradiction, but there is arguably a tension in the messages here. Why is there "good reason" to suppose that a democratic Iran might give up nukes when its regional ambitions and the configuration of forces in its environment will be, presumably, pretty much the same? Neighboring Pakistan has nuclear weapons; Afghanistan is in turmoil (and don't forget the Iranian regime has never been friendly with the Taliban); and Iran, democratic or not, would want, one would think, to consolidate the increased influence that the Iraq war and its aftermath bestowed on it.
(Of course, if you believe Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, the regime will stop short of actually developing a weapon once it has the capacity to do so. In which case regime change, from a "strategic" standpoint, becomes less urgent.)
There is a lot of "might" and "maybe" in Dr. Kagan's prescription. The "right kind of sanctions could help the Iranian opposition topple these still-vulnerable rulers [Ahmadinejad and Khamanei]," he asserts. But what are the "right kind of sanctions," and exactly how would they help? Until convincing answers to these questions are forthcoming, the judgment on "Forget the Nukes" must be the old Scotch verdict: Not proven.
Update: As another blogger observes, recent developments in the negotiations indicate that by not "forgetting the nukes," the Obama admin and the Europeans have achieved some progress on the issue.