January 01, 2009

Iran's Nuclear Ambitions Book Reivew

Originally published in Middle East Quarterly

Ali Alfoneh reviews Iran's Nuclear Ambitions, by Shahram Chubin.

Classical Persian literature features numerous books of andarz (counsel) or nasihat al-muluk (advice for kings), but current Iranian leaders remain surprisingly immune to the counsel and advice of learned men, even the advice of Chubin, a lifelong observer of Iranian strategy. Tired of convincing the turbaned Iranian leaders of the uselessness of nuclear weapons in deterring security threats facing the Islamic Republic, Chubin has written a book of advice for those who wish to counter Iran's nuclear ambitions. 

Chubin points out that Iran's nuclear ambitions reflect a broader aspiration on the part of the Iranian leadership: to become an Islamic superpower capable of dominating the greater Middle East and to provide nuclear protection to its allies and proxies. This strategy requires a reduction in the presence and influence of outside powers, such as the United States, in the Persian Gulf region. There is a past parallel to the current policy in the shah's opposition to the British naval presence in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s.

But while imperial Iran was a pillar of regional stability and a bulwark against Soviet infiltration, the Islamic Republic seeks destabilization by means of "export of the revolution" and support for international terrorism. Under Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran has expressed with renewed vigor its intention to annihilate Israel. Chubin presents a detailed analysis of Iran's nuclear negotiation strategy, leaving the distinct impression that for Iranian diplomats, delay is the real goal, albeit adorned with the techniques of the carpet dealers of the Grand Bazaar in Isfahan.

He discusses two main policy options for the United States: engagement and a grand bargain, or military strikes in the short term and regime change in the long term. Chubin is realistic enough to add that Iran "will deal" when vulnerable: "Absent an external threat, it will continue as in the past, opportunistic and reflexively hostile to the United States and Israel." Such a bargain, he suggests, is only possible if "the U.S. position in Iraq improves and with it its leverage." In this, though, he may overestimate the patience of the White House. Chubin's well-written and convincing book does not unveil the Iranian leadership's grand strategy but makes an important contribution to our understanding of the foreign and security policy of the Islamic Republic.

Ali Alfoneh is a visiting research fellow at AEI.