What is the problem? The West is suspicious of Iran's nuclear ambition. They are concerned that once the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) achieves a nuclear bomb, it may blackmail Western interests or attack Israel. Their worst nightmare is that terrorists could gain access to nuclear weapons from the IRI for use against Western populations.
What are the realities? By building a nuclear bomb, the IRI seeks, among other things, to discourage the US from pursuing regime change in Iran or supporting the opposition. Iran knows that a nuclear attack on Israel or on any country in the West would have an unacceptable cost: total destruction. This is not what the IRI is aiming for with its nuclear ambition.
By suppressing its critics and the independent media in Iran, the IRI has succeeded in identifying its nuclear project with Iranian national pride and interest. For the most part, it mobilized the people to rally behind the government. The IRI did not find anything else as popular as the nuclear project to inspire the support of the people. However, this mood is changing as people become disillusioned about Ahmadinejad’s campaign promises to improve the lot of the poor promises, but enlarging the tension with the West. These facts also have widened the gap between the ruling factions. Thus it is up to the West to win the people’s hearts and minds in Iran.
Iran does not want to see the tension with the West disappear. A foreign enemy is useful to the government in suppressing its opponents and reducing internal conflict. Since its inception, the IRI has always functioned best in crisis mode.
Unsuccessful US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have strengthened Iran in the region. The fruitless democratization campaigns in other Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, the electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine, the unexpectedly strong resistance of Hezbollah against Israeli troops in Lebanon, and the vain effort to uproot terrorism have all favored the IRI.
Pro-American Sunni states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf are worried by the replacement of Saddam’s regime with a predominantly Shii regime, and by the growing influence of the Iranian government among Muslim populations. This trend will undermine US allies and transform Iran into an absolute and unquestionable power in the region for years to come.
In addition to these developments, the radical faction in the IRI welcomes a limited military confrontation with the US and Israel. They believe they can mobilize the people around national and religious sentiments, claiming the US is plotting against the growth of Iran and other Muslim nations. Such negative reaction against the West in the Middle East is already evident.
The US does not have the capability to force the Iranian government out of power. A regional military strike can only wound Iran, while giving the IRI a legitimate excuse to press ahead with the production of nuclear weapons.
Conclusion: The US should refrain from using military force against Iran. Does this mean the West should allow the IRI to continue building nuclear bombs? The answer is no. The question is, what the US should do?
Solution: The West should decisively and convincingly declare that they will accept Iran's nuclear project if the IRI meets the simple condition of holding a free election to choose a truly representative government. Since the current government is not democratically elected, it does not represent the Iranian national will and cannot be a trustworthy negotiating partner. If Iran chooses a democratically elected government, the West will engage in full negotiations with the new government to resolve their differences. The US will guarantee that Iran is free to continue its nuclear development and even to achieve its nuclear bomb if it so desires. If the current government is confident that it represents the Iranian people, then it should not hesitate to hold a free and democratic election to reconfirm the will of the people. A free election must be monitored by the UN and international observers. The IRI must allow the Iranian people to freely form their political parties and organizations for a year before the election is held. To make this offer more attractive to the IRI, the US should commit to provide full support in building nuclear plants, and allow the UN or the International Court of Justice in the Hague to form a special committee to investigate the financial claims of the Iranian government, stipulating that it is prepared to pay off with interest any US debt that is verified.
The IRI may not accept this offer, but the Iranian people and Muslims would thereby learn about the good intentions of the US to resolve the crisis. This would frustrate Iranian attempts to mobilize people against the West. On the contrary, the Iranian people and Muslims would see that the IRI wants to drag them into a military confrontation with the West. This would cost the IRI a great deal of domestic and internal pressure, debase its claims, and build legitimacy for further and tougher actions by the West.
This bid will also do away with the double standard of dealing with other nuclear powers in the region, i.e. Israel, Pakistan, and Russia, and change the image of the US from that of an aggressor to a supporter of democracy and fairness in the region. The US badly needs to improve its image in the Middle East and the world. Israel must also fully support this project.
Such a change in policy will calm tensions in the region and give the US a better prospect for resolving the dangerous crisis in Iraq and bringing US troops home.
The cost of this plan is much lower than any other plans the West may pursue to resolve the crisis with Iran. Even the financial cost of this plan could soon be turned into profitable capital investment.
About the authors Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, former member of the Iranian Parliament, currently a research fellow at Harvard University. Kazem Alamdari teaches at California State University, Los Angeles.