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Security Guarantees?

by Michael Levi
October 23, 2008

We’ve been having an interesting conversation about what sort of Iranian enrichment capability, if any, would be acceptable. But regardless of our exact goal, we’re going to have to do a better job of sorting out our carrots and sticks. I also suspect this group largely agrees on what sticks, perhaps aside from military options (which I hope we’ll discuss later) make sense.

So I’ve got a question for the group (to which I don’t have a good answer). When we talk about carrots that haven’t been adequately explored, one of the key things we often talk about is offering “security guarantees”, which in theory could remove Iran’s perceived need for nuclear arms. It’s hard for me to understand, though, what a persuasive (to Iran) and responsible (for us) security guarantee would look like. (As Bruno notes, we may try to switch our rhetoric from “regime change” to “regime behavior change”, but the distinction is lost on the other end.)

Any ideas?


  • Posted by brunotertrais

    The issue of “security guarantees” is important. Those who have followed closely the negotiations with Libya and North Korea know that both States were eager for official US statements to the effect that Washington would not attack them if they complied.

    Unfortunately, Iran is a different case. Security guarantees were discussed with the first Iranian negotiating team (2003-2005). But it’s a different ballgame now. Since 2005, the main Iranian negotiators have stated several times on the record that they don’t want and don’t need security guarantees. (Most importantly, they probably would not believe them.) Security guarantees are often presented as some kind of magic wand by commentators to break the nuclear impasse. They are not.

    Furthermore, there is a moral dimension: why would the US and other Western countries give promises of non-aggression to a regime that regularly acts (often through proxies) in a way which is contrary to our interests? They could be part of a package which would come after we get clear assurances that Iran is ready to change its behavior.

    But don’t hold your breath for a grand bargain. This regime, especially in its current configuration, is eager for confrontation with “the West”. It is part of its raison d’etre. Remember that the takeover of the US embassy was one of the founding acts of the Republic.

    There may come a time when those who truly want reconciliation and cooperation have the upper hand in Tehran. That time has not arrived. Right now, the Iranian idea of a “security guarantee” is: “take your naval forces out of OUR Gulf”.

  • Posted by Mark Fitzpatrick, Senior Fellow, International Institute for Stratetic Studies, London

    I agree with Bruno. Iran certainly has legitimate security interests that need to be addressed in any satisfactory solution to the nuclear crisis. But what constitutes ‘legitimate’ interests is a matter of perspective. Iran’s desire for a regional role is intimately linked to its demand that western forces leave. What Iran sees as a deserved regional role for itself can easily be seen by its neighbours as a hegemonic impulse, especially in light of Iran’s disruptive role throughout the Middle East. For the Gulf states, concern about Iran getting the Bomb is almost matched by concern that the US and Iran will cut a deal behind their backs to give Iran more power at their expense. What is needed is a regional security structure that is inclusive and transparent