The failure of the Bush administration to persuade or coerce Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions for the past six years has increased the menace while decreasing the prospects for a peaceful solution. The United States must now develop a new strategy to end Iran’s nuclear program. Anything less will bring the Middle East ever closer to nuclear conflagration.
From the start, Mr. Bush’s wishy-washy approach to dealing with Iran’s nuclear program has permitted Tehran to outwit Washington in the game of brinkmanship and gain the time it needed to make tremendous progress in its quest to acquire nuclear weapons. The administration’s refusal to conduct direct negotiations, obsession with regime change, and preoccupation with Iraq has given Iran the time and the leverage it needed to refuse to negotiate on America’s terms while emboldening it to defy Washington without fear of reprisal.
Meanwhile, Britain, France, and Germany, representing the European Community (EU), have made little headway in their on-again off-again negotiations with Iran. By the time they presented Iran with a generous economic incentive and a promise that the Americans would enter into the negotiations if Tehran stopped its uranium enrichment program, Iran was swimming in oil money, close to $100 billion in hard currency.
Meanwhile, Tehran has been dismissive of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution calling on it to end its uranium enrichment program by the end of August. Tehran’s 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 UNSC resolution. The picture is bleak, and the Bush administration is being forced to settle for ever-reducible leverage. Unless the administration departs from its current policy toward Iran and charts a much bolder course of action, it will court disaster.
Iran has successfully played for time by stalling and resorting to ambiguities and contradictions. The administration has repeatedly fallen for these ploys. Instead, the White House needs to offer Iran the possibility of direct and unconditional negotiation with itself and its European partners for a limited period of three months. During this time, a negotiated settlement must be hammered out that satisfies both the United States and Iran while being fully supported by Russia and China.
This approach will allow Tehran to continue to enrich uranium only during the negotiation, satisfying Iran’s main demand. But permanent suspension will be the result rather than the precondition of the negotiations. The other option discussed, seeking UN economic sanctions, as the administration threatens to do, will be ineffective since it’s nothing more than a smokescreen. Russia and China will not agree to support any watered down resolution that can neither be enforced universally nor inflict real damage on Iran. This second option will end up giving Tehran ever more time to pursue its uranium enrichment program.
By agreeing to talk directly to the Iranians, by abandoning the policy of regime change in Tehran, and by providing a compelling economic incentive for Iran to come to the table, the administration will prevent Iran from playing Russia and China against the EU and the United States. Only under such circumstances will the United States be in a strong enough position to ask for and receive the full support of the Russians and the Chinese.
Notwithstanding that Russia and China, as permanent members of the Security Council, have the responsibility to do everything in their power to prevent the proliferation of WMD, they will not risk their lucrative business deals in Iran unless the United States makes a genuine commitment to a negotiated settlement.
America’s change in strategy will also underscore the seriousness of the situation because neither Russia nor China wants to see their investments in Iran go up in radioactive smoke. They’ll also realize that they’ve nothing to lose, but something tangible to gain if they remain resolute in the face of the Iranian threat because Iran will compromise only if it sees no other way out.
If the international community fails to end Iran’s nuclear weapon program, it will be left to Israel to deal with the menace, with all its catastrophic potential. For Israel the point of no return (the point at which Tehran masters the technology to produce nuclear weapons) looms even closer. Israeli intelligence circles estimate that Iran could reach such a point within two years, not the five to ten years estimated by the CIA. Iran’s president has repeatedly and unambiguously threatened Israel’s right to exist.
No Israeli government will be foolish enough not to take these threats very seriously. The war in Lebanon provided Israel with a rude awakening. A nuclear Iran does not merely intend to “eradicate the nuclear prestige of Israel” as the Iranian Newspaper Kayhan editorialized recently, its goal, many Israelis believe, is Israel’s eradication. From the Israeli perspective, the Iranian threat is terribly real: the international community must open its eyes and act in concert to avert a catastrophe of epic proportions.
The conditions under which negotiations should be conducted must leave Iran with no uncertainty that the failure to reach agreement will not simply lead to crippling economic sanctions but to the use of other coercive tactics, including blockades and other unspecified measures with the potential of producing a devastating effect. The responsibility falls on the Bush administration to do whatever it takes to remove the looming Iranian nuclear menace.
Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiations and Middle Eastern Studies. Web: www.alonben-meir.com