US Foreign Policy

A Showdown on Iran’s Nuclear Program

in Program

This commentary appeared in the Daily Star on October 1, 2004.

After a week of intense negotiations at the IAEA, the Iranian nuclear challenge remains very much unresolved. Delegates in Vienna have struggled to come up with a unified stance on the issue. But even apparent unity was insufficient to get the Iranians to agree to take minor positive steps to reassure the international community.

While some approaches to the problem might buy time, the Iranians seem set on their course. Their most recent announcement that they would convert uranium into gas needed for enrichment is yet another threshold Tehran crosses on its quest for enriched uranuim, something the Europeans had tried to prevent last year. The assurances of Khatami, a weakened president set to leave office next year, that Iran would refrain from building nuclear weapons carry little if any credibility. Barring a dramatic shift on Iran’s part, the stage is set for a showdown at the UN Security Council after November and the US presidential elections.

Yet, the UN Security Council is unlikely to be the venue for reaching a viable solution. What the United States will seek in New York will depend on whether President Bush gets reelected. A second Bush administration will push for international sanctions, but a wide-ranging agreement is needed for sanctions to become effective. Without this consensus, the US will be unable to achieve much. Indeed, with force off the table at least temporarily, Washington has little leverage over Tehran: the US Congress and different American administrations have imposed all possible political and economic sanctions. Washington, therefore, needs unanimous European, Russian, and Chinese endorsement of its views. The Europeans might be frustrated by Iran’s tactics and deception, feel embarrassed by their lack of success, and side with the US. But even with some European Union countries on board, new sanctions will require arduous negotiations and more American frustration with the UN process.

Whether Bush can succeed in garnering international support for this plan is doubtful. Many countries remain distrustful of the United States and remember the strenuous negotiations over Resolution 1441 and subsequent debates over Iraq. And making the case for sanctions against Iran will be tough: With Iraq fresh in mind, questions as to the quality of intelligence and the wisdom of a coercive approach would come to dominate the debate.

Moreover, Russia and China, who publicly, if quietly, opposed the Iraq war, are likely to actively resist the efforts of the United States and its allies. Both countries have massive economic and political interests in Iran and helped it develop its nuclear industry. With Iran now surrounded by American allies, both worry about US designs for the region. Finally, the two countries do not to share Washington’s Middle East vision or its anxiousness over the direction being taken by Tehran. The Bush administration has not prepared the ground for a successful diplomatic outcome, and the trade-offs required to get Beijing and Moscow on board might come at cost too high for Washington.

The Democratic candidate John Kerry has articulated a daring strategy that would put Tehran to the test by guaranteeing fuel supply to Iranian nuclear plants, but also see to it that the fuel is reprocessed outside the country. This approach gives Iran the benefit of the doubt but it could also precipitate a showdown should Iran hesitate or rebuff the offer. This plan evokes—without replicating—the 1994 Agreed Framework that the Clinton administration offered to North Korea, which delayed rather than stopped its nuclear program. However, the Kerry plan is even bolder because it seeks an end to the crisis.

Bush, in turn, would impose sanctions because his basic policy assumption is that Iran is on its way to building nuclear weapons. Kerry would expose Iranian intentions first, and, if a nuclear program is confirmed, proceed to enroll the international community in a vast effort to roll it back.

The problem with both strategies is that they divorce the nuclear question from the larger issues at stake, thus ignoring the reasoning behind Tehran’s security policy. By treating the Iranian nuclear issue as solely a security concern (albeit one that is crucial), the United States is avoiding the difficult task of defining a comprehensive and consistent policy toward Iran. It also ignores the matter of Iran’s role in the region. However, Iran’s now-evidenced interference in American efforts in Iraq, as well as its continued support for radical groups, makes it difficult for US policymakers to reason in grand strategic terms.

That said, the Washington policy debate is abuzz with ideas on how to deal with Iran. The hawks might be counting the troops and equipment needed to deal Iran a blow, but from “selective engagement” to a “grand bargain,” an array of pragmatic ideas are available. Their proponents include former high-level officials and regional experts who comprehend the danger of reducing the discussion to the nuclear issue which inflates the value of the nuclear program while obscuring other areas where progress can take place.

Iran has several valid rationales, at least in its own eyes, for pursuing a military nuclear capability. For many Iranian decision-makers, the Iraq war suggests that a strong, credible deterrent is the best shield against US aggression. Similarly, the North Korea negotiations suggest that the United States will come to the negotiations table and even explore deals that include security concessions when it is faced with complex challenges from nuclear states.

If Iran’s wager that the international community will be unable to formulate a common approach proves right, and if the Europeans refrain from imposing sanctions, the Iranians could reap substantial benefits. But if the United States pursues a policy of engagement, the ball will be on Tehran’s side. The Iranian leadership is probably divided on what to do if the United States shifts its position. Blaming Washington for lacking a consistent Iran policy should not mask Iran’s own internal contradictions and dilemmas. How it will react to either incremental moves or to a grand bargain is uncertain. Reaching a unified stance on how to deal with the US will be difficult: the role of the “pragmatic conservatives” will be crucial at this moment. But if Tehran wavers, it will send a damaging message to the world and confirm the worst fears about its aims.

A showdown with Iran will have grave repercussions on global affairs. From arms control and terrorism to stability in the Gulf and democracy, Iran is at the nexus of several major issues dominating the international agenda. If the US can go beyond domestic considerations and its structural limitations in comprehending Iran, it could at least convince the world of its good intentions.

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