The National Catholic Review
A proposal to promote regional stability
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Although the recently published National Intelligence Estimate has changed the nature of the international discussion about Irans nuclear ambition, it has not answered the question of Irans ultimate intention to acquire nuclear weapons. Whereas the intelligence estimate suggests with high probability that Iran froze its nuclear weapons program in 2003, neither the United States nor Israel, distrustful of Irans intentions, believe that the findings warrant a new reconciliatory approach toward Iran. Yet the new report offers the Bush administration an opportunity and imposes a new obligation to engage Iran through direct and unconditional negotiations in an effort to defuse the nuclear issue and substantially improve the prospects for regional stability.

How We Got Here

Irans insistence on its right to enrich uranium, which is a prerequisite to developing nuclear weapons, remains at the core of the dispute. Regardless of how consistent that may be with the provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty of which Iran is a signatory, Tehrans behavior and defiance of the international community continues to raise serious questions about its real intentions. Iran has hidden much of its nuclear development program for 18 years, and it continues to seek industrial scale enrichment of uranium; it supports Islamic and Arab extremism in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan; it repeatedly threatens Israels existence; and it consistently undermines the Arab-Israeli peace process. These actions reveal Tehrans ambition to be the regions hegemon, possibly armed with nuclear weapons once it chooses to restart its development program. But while the Bush administration is right to condemn Tehrans unsavory activities, it was wrong in its approach and policies toward Iran before the new intelligence estimate was made public, and the administration is certainly wrong now.

For nearly seven years the Bush administration has failed to articulate a coherent policy toward Tehran and bring it to heel. Mr. Bushs wishy-washy approach permitted Tehran to outwit Washington in the game of brinkmanship and gain the time it needed to make tremendous progress, at least until 2003, toward acquiring the know-how for making nuclear weapons. The Bush administrations refusal to conduct direct negotiations, its obsession with regime change and preoccupation with Iraq have given Iran the leverage to refuse to negotiate on Americas terms while emboldening it to defy Washington without fear of reprisal.

Meanwhile, Britain, France and Germany, representing the European Union, have made little headway in their on-again off-again negotiations with Iran. By the time they finally presented Iran, more than a year ago, with a so-called generous economic incentive package and a promise that the Americans would enter into the negotiations if Tehran stopped its uranium enrichment program, Iran was swimming in oil money, more than $100 billion in hard currency. Meanwhile, Tehran has been dismissive of the United Nations Security Council resolution calling on it to end its uranium enrichment program by the end of August 2007.

Tehrans governing clergy is counting on Russia and China, with their substantial oil and gas interests in Iran, to prevent any meaningful economic sanctions from being imposed on it by a future Security Council resolution. Moreover, the lessons learned from the Bush administrations direct negotiations with North Korea were not lost on Iran. Pyongyangs adamant refusal to give up North Koreas nuclear program before sitting face-to-face with the Americans, and then receiving much of the economic incentives along with security guarantees that it demanded, gave the Iranian clergy a strategy. Irans propensity for playing for time was only encouraged by the administrations inability to fashion a coherent policy that could mobilize the international community to act in concert against Iran. Stalling and resorting to ambiguities and contradictions have well served Irans designs. As a result, the Bush administration has had to settle for ever-reducible leverage.

Now it must capitalize on the new National Intelligence Estimate, depart from its current policy toward Iran and chart a much bolder course of action.

A New Way Forward

Any new policy of the Bush administration must begin by ending all public denunciations of Iran and reintroducing some civility to the public discourse. The United States should not stoop to the level of Irans President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by trying to match his outrageous public pronouncements. It must consider Irans national mind-set, which is nurtured by religious ideology that has little or nothing to do with reality. Ahmadinejad and his kind revel in denunciations of the United States and now feel particularly emboldened by the U.S. intelligence community and the attention paid it by the administration. The Iranian president may even welcome another Bush misadventure, one that will finally destroy what is left of Americas prestige and power in the wake of the Iraq war.

From the time Mr. Bush labeled Iran as a member of the axis of evil, followed by constant repudiation and criticism of its behavior, Tehran simply intensified its anti-American and anti-Israeli activities.

By all assessments, Iran has reaped the greatest benefits from the Iraq war. The war has provided Iran with a historic opportunity to establish Shiite dominance in the region, and its aggressive pursuit of a nuclear weapons program deters any challenge to its strategy. Tehran is fully cognizant that the successful pursuit of its regional hegemony has now become intertwined with the clout that a nuclear program bestows, even if it is not intended to lead to the development of nuclear weapons, as Iran claims. Now that international pressure on Iran is likely to recede following the new intelligence estimate, it is most unlikely that Iran will give up its uranium enrichment program at this juncture, unless it concludes that the price will be too high to bear.

The second phase of the new American policy should offer Iran a way out. The administration can make a real case against Iran and resolve the impasse by not insisting that Iran suspend the enrichment of uranium as a precondition of direct negotiations with Tehran. The White House must enter into direct and unconditional negotiations, along with its European partners and with Russia and China, for a limited period of, say, three months. During this time, the parties must hammer out a negotiated settlement that satisfies both the United States and Iran. This approach would allow Tehran to continue to enrich uranium only during the negotiations. Permanent suspension of enrichment would be the result, rather than the precondition, of the negotiation, satisfying Irans main demand and giving the regime a face-saving way out. The presence of Russia and China at the negotiating table would be critical, especially if no agreement is reached. By including these two parties, the United States would demonstrate that it had negotiated in good faith and exhausted all possible diplomatic options.

During the negotiations, the Bush administration should offer a detailed economic incentive package so that Iran knows precisely what the potential gains are and what the possible losses would be, should it decide to turn down the American/European offer. Regardless of the size of the economic incentive, since Iran fears America the most, Tehran, like North Korea, will likely insist on a non-belligerent agreement with the United States, which could eventually lead to the establishment of normal relations and regional security. Surely this would require the Bush administration to abandon its desire for regime change and accept the Iranian clergy as the legitimate government of Iran.

The United States has no other realistic option. Any political change in Iran must come from within, and it is the U.S. threat that pushes the government to tighten its grip on power and therefore keeps the regime in place. There is a growing moderate and powerful constituency in Iran that recognizes the importance of normalizing relations with the United States. This constituency can become far more vocal in promoting significant social and political reforms without being accused of disloyalty, provided that their government is no longer threatened by the United States.

And If Negotiations Fail...

Should the negotiations break down after three months without any agreement and Iran still refuses to halt its uranium enrichment, the Bush administration would then be in a much stronger position to mobilize the international community, especially Russia and China, to consider punitive measures against Tehran. In the wake of the National Intelligence Estimate, neither Russia nor China will support a new set of U.N. sanctions. Yet both Russia and China have tremendous oil and gas interests in Iran and are therefore vested in finding a peaceful solution to the impasse between Iran and the United States. Neither wants to risk long-term multibillion dollar investments. Russia and China, however, will cooperate with the United States only as long as they are convinced that the Bush administration is now willing to exhaust all diplomatic channels.

To be sure, the conditions under which negotiations should be conducted must convince Iran that a failure to reach agreement could lead to crippling economic sanctions even if imposed by the United States and the European Union alone, while not excluding the use of other coercive measures as may be deemed necessary.

The Bush administration must also seek better working relations and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In the final analysis, this agency is the non-proliferation watchdog; it and the administration must not work at cross-purposes. So far, the Iranian government has skillfully played the I.A.E.A. against the United States, managing to gain not only more time but also legitimate cover under the agency rules. That is precisely what prompted President Ahmadinejad to state in his speech of September 2007 at the United Nations General Assembly that Irans nuclear issue is no longer political but technical in nature and can be resolved between the I.A.E.A. and Tehran without outside interference. Although the I.A.E.A. director, Mohamed ElBaradei, welcomed the new National Intelligence Estimate, he strongly suggested that the new report should prompt Iran to work actively with the I.A.E.A. to clarify specific aspects of its past and present nuclear program as outlined in the work plan and through the implementation of the additional protocol. In any future negotiations, Tehran should have no choice but to accept unfettered inspection by the I.A.E.A., while observing total and complete transparency in all of its nuclear facilities with no exception.

Understanding Israels Position

One other critical issue must be kept in mind. If the Bush administration fails to end Irans nuclear program peacefully, it will be left to Israel, which remains convinced that Iran is still actively pursuing nuclear weapons, to deal with Iran. Concerning Irans nuclear program, Israeli intelligence may be more accurate, specifically because of Israels pervasive human intelligence in the region. Although America and Israel share, among other things, pertinent intelligence, their respective intelligence communities do not always reach the same conclusion. For one thing, feeling consistently threatened by Iran, Israel delves much deeper into intentions discerned from religious convictions, which requires a more nuanced intelligence analysis that a more detached examination tends to yield. For this reason, Israel does not accept the freezing of Irans nuclear program in 2003 as nonreversible. In fact, Israel believes the program has already been reversed and that Irans ambition to reach industrial levels of uranium enrichment only reinforces this contention.

For Israel, the point of no return (the point at which Tehran masters the technology to produce nuclear weapons) looms ever closer. Israeli intelligence circles and government officials disagree with the new intelligence estimate; they still believe that Iran could master the technology in less than two years, not the five to seven years estimated by the C.I.A. Irans president has repeatedly and unambiguously threatened Israels right to exist. No Israeli government would be so foolish as not to take these threats very seriously.

After reading the new National Intelligence Estimate, Israels Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested, It is our responsibility to ensure that the right steps are taken against the Iranian regime. As is well known, words dont stop missiles.... We cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the earth, even if it is from our greatest friend. The war in Lebanon gave Israel a rude awakening. A nuclear Iran does not merely intend to eradicate the nuclear prestige of Israel as the Iranian newspaper Kayham editorialized recently, but, many Israelis believe, to eradicate Israel itself. From the Israeli perspective, the Iranian threat is extremely real and the international community must open its eyes to the looming danger.

During his remaining year in office, President Bush has to choose between defusing the tension with Iran while promoting regional stability and continuing his bellicose denunciation of Tehran, which could lead inadvertently or by design to a violent conflict. It was the Bush administration that turned down Irans offer in early 2003 to negotiate a comprehensive peaceful settlement between the two sides. The burden is now on Mr. Bush. Only through face-to-face negotiations will his administration be in a position to discern the true intentions of the Iranian government, completely remove the nuclear threat and put in place the building blocks of peace and stability.

Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. He is also the Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute.

Comments

John McShane | 1/8/2008 - 1:18am
This discussion seems to suggest what the Big 3 European powers have attempted (with USA backing). At each step, Iran made it very obvious to belittle the authority of any foreign agency who thought they could interfer with Iran's national agenda. Russia and China have likewise made clear, in many issues, that they operate for their own benefit. It is of little help to again suggest what has failed. Iran reads this as affirmation that they will prevail, regardless of foreign blather. They have seen all that foreigners have to offer as obstruction. If the West is serious, then whatever made Iran hesitate in 2003 might possible be what will work again. What happened in 2003?