Iran will pose the most daunting foreign policy challenge for the second Bush administration. The nuclear issue is only the most immediate problem; others include Iran's support for terrorism and its lack of democracy. Unless a new course is set, Iran could become another Cuba or Iraq for the United States.
On the nuclear front, Britain, France and Germany seem to have succeeded in convincing Iran to temporarily suspend enrichment of uranium in exchange for supplies of fuel and European trade. The United States has given this dialogue grudging support, but wants to report Iran to the UN Security Council as it suspects Iran's intention.
This stance makes the mistake of viewing Iran's nuclear challenge as an isolated problem. Yet, Iran's nuclear ambition is directed toward the “American threat” to its security, and as long as this threat is not removed any solution to the nuclear matter would be temporary.
Viewed from this angle and as a part of the larger US-Iran dispute, the nuclear problem presents a historic opportunity; and coupled with the US problems in Iraq, it creates a strategic imperative for a US-Iran engagement.
The administration has dealt with Iran as if the current regime were about to collapse, and will respond only to the sticks and not to the carrots of diplomacy. Yet, the Islamic regime is not going to fall because of the sticks; it has demonstrated a convincing ability to weather repeated crises. However, as a capitalist state, it does respond to incentives.
There are three alternatives for dealing with Iran. One is the Cuban option — sustained economic sanctions and political pressure without diplomatic relations. In the strategic and volatile Middle East, which holds the largest chunk of the world's oil and gas reserves, prolonging the dispute with Iran would not serve America's interests.
There is the Iraqi option — forced regime change. This one would lead to death and destruction on a larger scale than in Iraq. Iran is a bigger country with a more complex geography and a highly nationalistic people. It is also a more strategic nation with huge energy reserves. Besides, the U.S. still needs to win the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The third option is the one the U.S. pursued with the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, along with a host of other dictatorial regimes in Asia and Latin America. It maintained diplomatic ties and used both the carrot of trade and the stick of demanding liberalism to contain the regimes and promote democracy.
This last option is the only viable one. To get it started, Iran should suspend uranium enrichment and agree to transfer spent fuel abroad in exchange for guaranteed fuel supply. To clinch the deal, the United Nations should initiate the idea of a global moratorium on enrichment, as world's stock of enriched uranium will last for decades.
A dialogue on a regional security framework would be the next logical step. Along with the dialogue on a global moratorium, it would help Tehran justify giving up its right to enrichment, maintaining national pride. It also would close the troubling loophole in the Non-Proliferation Treaty that lets countries enrich uranium to a certain point.
My discussions with Iranian officials convince me that an initiative along these lines can succeed if it is pursued as a step toward normalization of relations with the United States. The officials realize that they must make concessions on the nuclear issue, but have little incentive to do so if they get no relief from America's sanctions and security threat.
Breaking the logjam of the nuclear issue can open the door to progress on other grievances. Most notable among them are terrorism and democracy. The issues are closely linked to each other and to the nuclear problem, as President Bush has asserted. A democratic Iran will not support terrorism, threaten neighbors, or build nuclear bombs.
The challenge is thus to find the right approach to democracy. The experience of the last 25 years suggests that no nation has become democratic while lacking relations with the U.S. Two other factors have also been influential: economic interaction with the West and sustained pressure by the UN for observance of human rights and the role of law.
Since the late 1970s, in roughly 30 authoritarian regimes where these conditions were met, societies have moved toward democracy. Think of South Korea, Eastern Europe, Russia and South Africa, where the U.S. maintained diplomatic ties and a level of trade relations with the authoritarian regimes, while sustaining tough political pressure.
In contrast, where these conditions were not met, authoritarian regimes remain in power. Look at Cuba and North Korea, along, of course, with Iran, where broken diplomatic ties, economic sanctions, and political pressure have encouraged a conservative drift. Then there is Iraq, which the U.S. invaded after 13 years of multilateral sanctions.
Critics will point to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among other states, where the conditions are met but the regimes remain authoritarian. Most of these countries are Islamic and/or oil exporters. The truth is, Islam and oil remain obstacles to democratization. Reforming Islam and diversifying oil-based economies are thus keys to democratic regime change.
Assuming that Iran satisfies the U.S. on the nuclear issue, the two should follow up with an expression of interest to normalize relations. Further talks could lead to resumption of ties and to strategic and economic concessions. Given domestic demand and outside pressure, the regime will reform as its fundamentalist ideology and oil economy falter.
The interests of neither country would be served by pushing Iran to become an Iraq or Cuba for the U.S. in a region that is as strategic as it is volatile. Several polls have indicated that most Iranians want to normalize relations with the U.S. and become another South Korea, not maintain hostilities and become another North Korea.
Bio Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi is a Professor and Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey and President of the American Iranian Council.