Iran's Nukes: Are the U.S. and Europe Out of Sync?

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw

The international community is united, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says, in demanding that Iran refrain from building nuclear weapons. But behind the statements of common purpose, there is not nearly as much agreement on how to achieve that end as the U.S. would like to admit. That's because the Europeans, who are running the diplomatic process, are not only talking about threatening greater penalties, but also offering Iran more incentives, particularly security guarantees .

This carrot and stick approach may be standard diplomatic practice, but it raises an awkward question for an administration whose own de-facto Iran policy veers towards regime change. Almost every nation that backs the U.S. against Iran going nuclear would be equally adamant against any U.S. effort to force a change of regime in Tehran. The Europeans believe that regime change, although desirable, must occur as a result of internal pressure, because — as the nuclear standoff has shown — any external threat rallies even opponents of the mullahs behind their regime, and any attack on Iran would create chaos in the region. Thus, while Secretary Rice was telling British audiences last week that military action "is not what is on the agenda now" but that President Bush "never takes any option off the table," her host and British counterpart Jack Straw has repeatedly and strenuously made clear that military action is "inconceivable."

Until now, the Bush administration and the Europeans have done their best to paper over the inherent conflicts in their respective positions. But that is fast becoming untenable: Security guarantees, after all, involve giving Tehran cast-iron promises that it will not be attacked and working to normalize relations with the regime, in order to remove any incentive it might have for creating a nuclear deterrent. The conflict in strategies was visible this week when administration officials rebuffed the suggestion by Germany, backed by Britain, that Washington hold direct talks with Tehran to break the nuclear deadlock.

The dynamic with Iran, in fact, is starting to look a lot like the diplomatic wrangling over that other notorious member of the "Axis of Evil," North Korea. In that on-again, off-again six-party negotiating process, which includes North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, the U.S. and Japan, the consensus among everyone but the U.S. is that walking Pyongyang back across the nuclear threshold requires offering it security guarantees and direct talks with the U.S. Washington hawks have long balked at those conditions, but the agreement of principles concluded last September does, in fact, include a security guarantee from the U.S. in exchange for North Korea renouncing nuclear weapons. Those talks have remained deadlocked since last fall, but the suspicion that Washington is seeking the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang has resulted in an increasingly open split between the U.S. and South Korea, the democracy whose protection is the reason U.S. still has troops on the Korean peninsula.

Long before the current nuclear standoff heated up, this preference for regime change has caused the White House to duck opportunities for dialogue with Tehran. Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, says an Iranian offer of talks to address all U.S. concerns was rebuffed in 2003 at the behest of the regime-change faction of the Bush administration. Former Bush National Security Council official Flynt Leverett has confirmed this account, and warns that the administration lacks a serious Iran policy by virtue of President Bush's refusal to engage with a regime he considers fundamentally illegitimate. Everett notes: "Because of the administration's deliberate decision to rule out serious strategically grounded diplomacy with Iran on this issue, [Security Council action and a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities] are the only two options they've got, and neither is going to work."

The Europeans know that, which is why in the coming months they will insist, ever so delicately, that Iran be offered expanded incentives along with the threatened penalties. The really bad news for Washington hawks is that the only incentives that matter are those that can be offered by, you guessed it, the U.S. And if Washington balks at offering Tehran what most of the international community would regard as reasonable security guarantees, it won't only be Iran that finds itself isolated.