History, they say, has a funny way of repeating itself.
During the decades of the Cold War, it became something of an article of faith within the Washington Beltway that strategic arms control with the Soviet Union was a key guarantor of global security. This was so despite ample evidence that the intricate "balance of terror" erected between Moscow and Washington as a result of a quarter-century of arms control actually had made America considerably less safe—and that catastrophic crisis had been narrowly avoided on a number of occasions.
Today, as the United States confronts another aggressive ideological adversary, the Islamic Republic of Iran, that particular refrain has resurfaced. Increasingly, the argument is gaining currency that arms control can succeed where diplomatic "engagement" and economic sanctions have not: in defusing the current, deepening international stand-off with Iran over that its nuclear ambitions.
Take the latest piece by Ray Takeyh, the resident Iran hand of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. Writing in the March 19th edition of the New York Times, he argues that the Iranian leadership is ultimately pragmatic despite its radicalism, and that—with the proper internal pressure—the regime in Tehran could still come to the negotiating table with the West over its atomic effort. To wit:
All is not lost. The task at hand remains to devise an imaginative coercive strategy that moves beyond economic penalties and exploits Khamenei's political vulnerabilities in a manner that compels him to expand his coalition and reach out to more moderate elements. Only then can Iran be counted on to negotiate and adhere to a viable arms control treaty.
The problems with this argument are legion. For one thing, after more than a decade of neglect of Iran's domestic situation by successive administrations, the United States has precious few equities on the Iranian "street"—and even less ability to generate the kind of moderate mobilization Takeyh advocates. For another, as the recent Iranian parliamentary elections eloquently highlighted, Iran's central domestic political contest is now a battle between competing conservative camps; the country's moderates and so-called "reformists" increasingly are sidelined or coopted.
Perhaps most problematic of all, however, is Takeyh's uncritical embrace of the notion that arms control can somehow serve as a source of stability in our dealings with Iran. That idea neglects the fact that the current nuclear stand-off is already taking place within a well-defined arms control framework. Iran, after all, has been a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty since 1968. That, however, has not stopped the current regime in Tehran from pursuing an offensive nuclear capability—or from exploiting the permissive nature of the treaty regime to do so.
The Islamic Republic, moreover, has repeatedly used just this sort of arms control diplomacy to play for time and add permanence to its nuclear program. Back in September 2005, Hassan Rowhani, one of the country's key nuclear negotiators, said as much when he admitted publicly that "[w]hile we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan." In the six-and-a-half years since, Iran's repeated flirtations with international diplomacy have helped preserve Western inaction—and empower the regime's ominous nuclear progress.
By now, the lessons should be crystal clear. Arms control isn't a panacea for our current problems with Iran and its persistent nuclear ambitions. And hope in international diplomacy doesn't amount to much of a strategy for dealing with them.