All Writings
February 13, 2005

Curbing Iran’s Nuclear Threat

Since the beginning of Mr. Bush’s first term, his administration has failed to pursue a coherent policy toward either Iran or North Korea to curb their appetite for developing nuclear weapons. The administration’s stubborn refusal to negotiate directly with North Korea finally pushed Pyongyang into an open declaration that it possesses nuclear arms. Using the same tactics toward Iran, the administration is forcing Tehran to follow in North Korea’s path.

The United States has legitimate grievances against Iran–its pursuing nuclear weapons, sponsoring terrorism, fomenting resistence against Arab regimes, and undermining American interests throughout the Middle East. But it’s difficult to see the logic behind the belief by administration officials that they can change Iran’s ways simply by trying to intimidate the clergy or by threatening new international sanctions or attempting to bring about a change of regime in Tehran. This policy shows how little this administration has learned about Iran’s national mindset, how the Iranians view themselves and how they view Washington. Granted, many Iranians are not thrilled over how their country is run by the clergy, but threatening Iran with sanctions or the use of force plays into the hands of its rulers, making them seem the target of American aggression and thus to be rallied around. Iranians are a very proud people with a long history and a rich civilization, and bullying their government just will not work. Having witnessed two of their neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan, invaded by the United States, Iranians have every reason to fear American threats, a fact that emboldens rather than weakens their resolve and their anti-American stand.

That said, Iran should be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons not only because of the politically destabilizing effect this will have but because there is always the danger that such weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist groups, or be accidently or inadvertently used, inflicting an unimaginable catastrophe on the entire region or beyond. Precisely because of these possibilities, the administration should not deal with this problem through proxies. Here is why: Mr. Bush does not believe the European negotiating team represented by Britain, France, and Germany can exact a solid commitment from Iran to permanently suspend its uranium enrichment program in a verifiable and transparent way. And even if this occurred, he does not trust, for good reason, the Iranians to live up to such a commitment. But turning the matter over to the United Nations Security Council, as the administration is currently urging, will not solve the problem either. First, there is absolutely no assurance that the SC will pass a resolution imposing comprehensive sanctions against Iran. Second, even if it does, they will be extremely difficult to universally enforce because many nations, including some of America’s own allies, may violate the resolution for what they perceive to be in their national interest, as has happened in the past. Finally, suggesting that Israel might take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, as intimated by Vice President Cheney, who said, “The Israelis might well decide to act first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterward,” is neither wise nor desirable. Yes, Israel has every reason to want to eliminate Iran’s nuclear potential, mainly because Iran has threatened and continues to threaten its very existence. But does the administration really want to entangle Israel in a conflict that could so easily spin out of control?

It seems that the administration is searching for every possible avenue to deal with Iran, while avoiding the one path that could bring Iran’s nuclear program to a real halt–direct talks with its leadership. The administration’s announced policy to support regime change in Iran obviously stands in the way. Direct talks bestow legitimacy on the Iranian clergy who the administration wishes to ignore while simultaneously demanding unconditional compliance from them. Iran insists that enrichment of uranium is within its rights as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), because this uranium is intended strictly for peaceful use. Surely, the administration cannot take Iran at its word, but then it is not enough to simply accuse it of developing a clandestine nuclear weapon’s program (even if circumstantial evidence, including the purchase from Pakistan of a blueprint of sophisticated centrifuges which are used to create the enriched uranium necessary for bombs, points to this). How does, one might ask that “the international community come together to make very clear to Iran we will not tolerate the construction of nuclear weapons” as Mr. Bush did, without the direct involvement of the United States? Unfortunately, this administration simply does not get it. Its arrogant approach, shortsightedness, and misplaced priorities–with so much focus on Iraq which had no active nuclear program and no weapons of mass destruction– have now brought Washington face-to-face with the grim reality of facing North Korea as a current nuclear power and Iran as a future power–possibly within a couple of years. If the current “adrift” policy continues, the administration may well leave Israel with no choice but to take matters into its own hands to protect itself from a sworn enemy bent on its destruction. “Under no circumstances would Israel be able to abide nuclear weapons in Iranian possession” said Israel’s defense minister Mufaz in a recent statement. No one should take such a possible scenario lightly because “the diplomatic mess” left behind may be more than even this administration can handle.

As long as Mr. Bush continues to seek a regime change in Iran, we can count on the Iranians to do everything in their power to obtain nuclear weapons to deter an American attack. Unfortunately, however, this administration does not get this basic fact. Very little progress can be made on any front as long as the dark cloud of America’s current policy continues to hover over Tehran. For this reason, the administration must end its double talk and dissociate itself from the notion of regime change as long as genuine diplomatic efforts are being made to stop Iran from going forward with acquiring a nuclear capacity. In this context, administration officials must cease their threats (so far indirect) to use force which does nothing but harden the clergy’s stance. Indeed, why should any government in Tehran (or anywhere else) negotiate with a government that it does not trust and that openly calls for its demise?

There are limits to how much the Europeans or the International Atomic Energy Agency can accomplish without full and direct American involvement. The best course, if not the only course, is for the administration to initiate direct bilateral talks with Iran and so change the dynamic of the conflict. If Tehran refuses America’s call for bilateral negotiation, Mr. Bush will then be in a much stronger position to demand and receive international backing in seeking other and more coercive diplomatic means to bring Iran to heel.