Posen: U.S. can deter Iranian nuclear threat
By Nathan Yeo
Published on Thursday, February 25, 2010
U.S. policy towards Iran must be supplemented by a strategy of containment and deterrence to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Barry Posen, director of security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and fellow at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, said during a lecture on Wednesday. The talk, “Offense or Defense? U.S. Options and Iran’s Nuclear Program,” was sponsored by the Dickey Center and held in the Haldeman Center’s Kreindler Conference Center.
The current U.S. strategy of economic sanctions combined with negotiations has proven insufficient, Posen said. The international community’s attempts to curtail Iran’s nuclear activities through sanctions have not worked over the past several years either, and harsher sanctions would be difficult to coordinate, he added.
“I would like diplomacy and sanctions to work,” Posen said. “I’m skeptical that it will.”
In addressing Iran, the United States should instead implement a strategy of containment and deterrence similar to its strategy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Posen said. The mostly Sunni Arab states in the Middle East are wary of Iran because it is the most powerful state in the region and because it is Persian and Shiite, he said. The United States could find allies in these nations to assist in the containment strategy, he added.
Posen said he was confident the United States has enough of a military advantage to be able to contain Iran, citing statistics showing that U.S. defense spending is three times Iran’s gross national product and 100 times its defense spending.
Posen said Iran must be made aware that it is entering the “big leagues” of international politics and that if Iran is a nuclear power, it also makes itself a nuclear target. The United States should continue negotiations with Iran to build a nuclear energy program with verification inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency, he said.
“We may eventually have to agree they have a right to the full fuel cycle,” Posen said.
This would force the Iranians, he said, to “decide to live outside the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation] treaty or decide to live inside the treaty.”
Posen characterized Iran as a “deterrable” country motivated by self-preservation — making Iran unlikely to use any nuclear weapons it developed against its main regional rival Israel, a nuclear power, he said. Iran would also be unlikely to give nuclear weapons to terrorists, Posen said, because it could not control detonation of the weapons and could also face nuclear retaliation if the weapon’s origin were discovered.
Posen also described an alternative proposal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons by launching an attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. While Posen said attacks by the United States or Israel would “set back” the regime’s nuclear program, they would not eliminate the program because many of Iran’s nuclear facilities are located deep underground in concrete bunkers. Such an attack might help the Iranian government solidify control over an unstable country, he added.
“The regime might like to get thwacked by the Israelis,” he said.
An attack on Iran would alienate Middle Eastern states looking for stability in the region, Posen said. He also said that moderate Iranians who are opposed to the current regime but generally supportive of the nuclear energy program could be alienated by an attack.
“It’s not clear that punching this button will be seen as something the regime had coming,” he said, referring to a hypothetical attack on Iran.
Iran could retaliate against a U.S. and Israeli attack in several ways, Posen said. Although he said he doubted Iran’s ability to destroy oil instillations in the Persian Gulf, Posen said global oil prices would likely spike nonetheless. Iran would also likely take revenge on U.S. soldiers stationed nearby.
“There’s not a lot you can do about the ability of the Iranians to get at U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Posen said.