Fareed Zakaria points out that much of what “everyone knows” about Iran may be wrong:
Everything you know about Iran is wrong, or at least more complicated than you think. Take the bomb. The regime wants to be a nuclear power but could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program (which could make the challenge it poses more complex). What’s the evidence? Well, over the last five years, senior Iranian officials at every level have repeatedly asserted that they do not intend to build nuclear weapons. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has quoted the regime’s founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who asserted that such weapons were “un-Islamic.” The country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons as immoral. In a subsequent sermon, he declared that “developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam.” Last year Khamenei reiterated all these points after meeting with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. Now, of course, they could all be lying. But it seems odd for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its fidelity to Islam to declare constantly that these weapons are un-Islamic if it intends to develop them. It would be far shrewder to stop reminding people of Khomeini’s statements and stop issuing new fatwas against nukes.
Following a civilian nuclear strategy has big benefits. The country would remain within international law, simply asserting its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a position that has much support across the world. That would make comprehensive sanctions against Iran impossible. And if Tehran’s aim is to expand its regional influence, it doesn’t need a bomb to do so. Simply having a clear “breakout” capacity—the ability to weaponize within a few months—would allow it to operate with much greater latitude and impunity in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Of course it would be silly to be naive and just base our policy on the assumption that the Iranians are telling the truth about all this. But by the same token, we should recognize that they might be telling the truth. Or, perhaps most realistically of all, that “they” may disagree about this.