Changing the Conventional Wisdom About Iran

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Hasan Sarbakhshian / AP

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaks about Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran.

Both U.S. presidential candidates agree that Iran must be stopped from acquiring nuclear-weapons capability, and their preferred option for doing so is diplomacy — by which they mean sanctions. Even though John McCain is more inclined to keep a military option "on the table," the U.S. military establishment has made clear that attacking Iran is the proverbial "bridge too far", whose consequences would pose an unacceptable risk to U.S. interests. The problem is that the current diplomatic effort is going nowhere.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council voted to reaffirm existing sanctions in response to Iran's continued defiance of the demand that it suspend uranium enrichment. Iran has long made clear it has no intention of heeding that demand, and the sanctions that back it are having no discernible effect on Tehran's position. But Russia and China will ensure that the Security Council does not substantially escalate its sanctions. Still, the Bush Administration has precious few diplomatic alternatives but to the U.N. process and the milquetoast sanctions in produces as a result of the substantially different views of its key members on the nature of the problem, and its solution.

The failure of punitive diplomacy and prohibitive consequences of military action have prompted a growing number of experts in France, a key U.S. ally on the Iran issue, to argue for an entirely new approach, based on a diplomatic approach that treats Iran less like pariah, and more like a partner.

"The opportunity is there to move past the 30 year-old images of a defiant and frightening revolutionary Iran, and start encouraging cooperative behavior by engaging with Iran as the swiftly-developing nation and regional power it is," says Bernard Hourcade, an Iran specialist at France's National Center for Scientific Research. "The key is direct American involvement in relations, because renewed ties with the U.S. is what Iran wants most."

"Iran's biggest strategic concern is obtaining security assurances and accords, and the only nation that can provide those is the U.S." says Didier Billion, deputy director of the Institute on International and Strategic Relations in Paris. The logic behind that view is supported by Thomas Fringar, chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council and the senior analyst in Washington's intelligence community. In a recent preview of his council's Global Trends 2025 report, Fringar noted that Iran's leaders will eventually decide on whether to build nuclear weapons based on their assessment of their security environment."The United States took care of Iran's principal security threats [Saddam Hussein and the Taliban]," he said, "except for us, which the Iranians consider a mortal threat."

Part of the reason for the current standoff, says Hourcade, is that in order to keep the capacity to build nuclear weapons out of Iran's hands, the West is offering Tehran incentives to forego certain activities — such as uranium enrichment — that it is legally allowed to pursue under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. "The flaw with the carrot and stick approach is that Iran's leaders — backed by wide consensus in Iranian society — view as a sovereign right the development of a civil nuclear program as they see fit, meaning any carrots designed as a swap for that are regarded as illegitimate as the disuasive sticks," Hourcade says. "Each side has come to see denying the other what it's after as both a matter of pride as well as geo-strategic importance," agrees Billion. "The vital issue of nuclear development and use has been overwhelmed by the wider, habitual jousting between Iran and the West."

The thinking in Washington may also be changing, however. Although McCain dismisses as "dangerous" and "naive" Barack Obama's promises "to engage in tough, direct diplomacy with Iran," momentum for direct diplomacy with Teheran is gaining on both sides of the partisan divide. Even former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Colin Powell have urged expanding direct contacts between the two nations, and the Bush Administration last July sent U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs William Burns sat down with diplomats from Iran and Europe to discuss the nuclear stand-off. Regardless of campaign-trail rhetoric, the need to talk directly to Tehran is fast becoming bipartisan conventional wisdom in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

The obstacles are considerable, of course, given Iran's reputation as a regional troublemaker via its proxies in Lebanon and Iraq, and also in light of its support for Palestinian radical groups. But those who advocate for a new diplomatic strategy argue that it is precisely Iran's capacity to make life difficult for the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East that makes so urgent the pursuit of a new framework of engagement in which to manage a very dangerous conflict. Like the U.S. National Intelligence Council's Fringar, they differentiate between Iran pursuing the capacity to build a bomb, and taking the decision to actually build one — which, they say, hasn't yet happened. Dissuading Iran from going that route requires a new American relationship with Teheran, the French analysts argue.

"Iran doesn't need an actual nuclear bomb for deterrence if its security can be ensured in other ways — like through accords with the U.S." Hourcade says. "Meanwhile, Germany and Japan have the capacity to build a bomb within three months and that bothers no one. The idea is get Iran to evolve towards behavior where its possession of materials and knowledge to build a bomb is viewed as equally improbable of those being used to actually construct one."

Besides, says Billion, there may actually be more dangerous threats out there than the one presented by Iran developing a nuclear energy program that could potentially be used to create a weapon. "Though we'd all like to see Iran's political structure far more open, free, and pluralistic, even its fiercest opponents won't accuse Iran of being unstable and chaotic," Billion notes. "Now compare that to our ally Pakistan, whose construction of a nuclear bomb didn't provoke anywhere near the alarm. Or at least didn't back then."