Breaking the logjam of the nuclear issue can open
the door to progress on other U.S.-Iran grievances
December 30, 2004
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
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,
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
nationalistic people. It is also a more strategic nation with
huge energy reserves. Besides, the U.S. still needs to win the
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
diplomatic ties and used both the carrot of trade and the stick
of demanding liberalism to contain the regimes and promote
This last option is the only viable one. To get it started,
Iran should suspend uranium enrichment and agree to transfer
fuel abroad in exchange for guaranteed fuel supply. To clinch
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
a certain point.
My discussions with Iranian officials
me that an initiative along these lines can succeed if
it is pursued as a step toward normalization of relations with
The officials realize that they must make concessions
on the nuclear issue, but have little incentive to do so if
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
democracy. The issues are closely linked to each other
and to the nuclear problem, as President Bush has asserted.
will not support terrorism, threaten neighbors, or build
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
U.S. Two other
factors have also been influential: economic interaction
with the West and sustained pressure by the UN for
and the role of law.
Since the late 1970s, in roughly 30 authoritarian regimes
where these conditions were met, societies have moved
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
and political pressure have encouraged a conservative
drift. Then there is Iraq, which the U.S. invaded
after 13 years
Critics will point to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among
other states, where the conditions are met but
Most of these countries are Islamic and/or oil
exporters. The truth is, Islam and oil remain
obstacles to democratization.
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
relations. Further talks could lead to resumption
of ties and to strategic and economic concessions.
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
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