A funny thing happened on the way to possible war with Iran. After threatening Tehran for months and darkly warning that “all options are on the table,” the United States in June suddenly switched gears and joined with other major countries in offering to negotiate. This was a hopeful development that for the moment reduced the risk of military attack against Iran.
The debate within the United States over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program is by no means settled, however. Neoconservatives are pushing for a more confrontational approach, while pragmatists are urging patience and direct U.S. engagement. The outcome of this debate will have enormous implications for the prospects of peace, not only in Iran but more broadly in the region.
The proposals offered to Iran by a coalition of European countries, the United States, Russia, and China tend to confirm what many critics in the U.S. have been saying about the best way to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Threatening sanctions and the use of force against Iran is counterproductive and will only harden the Iranian position. Incentives will be more successful than sanctions in gaining Tehran’s cooperation. Diplomatic engagement is the most realistic strategy for preventing the further spread of weapons and war in the region.
THE PROPOSALS PRESENTED this spring to Iran are a step in the right direction, but they do not go far enough toward addressing the roots of the conflict. The incentives package reportedly allows Iran to purchase light-water nuclear reactors, which are less proliferation-prone than its current reactors. It includes a promise of Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization and a pledge to lift restrictions on the Iranian purchase of modern civil aircraft. The package also includes an implicit commitment from the United States to talk with Iran, although only indirectly as part of a multilateral process.
The incentives offer does not resolve the underlying hostilities between the United States and Iran. The two countries have been in a virtual state of war for decades. The United States has been hostile toward the Islamic revolution since its victory in 1979. Washington is also deeply concerned about Tehran’s support for Hezbollah terrorist attacks against Israel. The United States has maintained draconian sanctions on Iran since the 1980s and supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Tehran. It will be difficult to resolve the nuclear dispute between the two countries without an easing of tensions and the beginning of diplomatic dialogue.
The United States could break the ice by offering to lift some of the economic sanctions that are now in place. This could be done in ways that benefit the sectors of Iranian society that are most likely to encourage cooperation with the West. The United States could also begin a phased release of the estimated $17 billion in Iranian assets that has remained frozen in U.S. banks since 1979. Washington could offer to drop its opposition to the Iranian pipeline project in central Asia. There are numerous actions that the U.S. government could take to signal a desire for normalizing relations, in exchange for guarantees of Iranian compliance with nonproliferation norms.
These and other incentive offers should be the subject of direct talks between Washington and Tehran. The U.S. refusal to sit down with Iranian officials is counterproductive politically. The discussions between the European governments and Iran have value, but there is no substitute for direct dialogue between Washington and Tehran.
THE MOST IMPORTANT incentive and by far the biggest carrot Washington could offer would be a formal pledge to refrain from military action against Iran as part of a binding nonproliferation agreement. Security assurances are the key to persuading potential proliferators to refrain from building atomic bombs. Assurances from the United States would dramatically alter Iran’s security calculus and ease fears of potential military attack. This would remove the perceived need that some in Iran may feel for a nuclear deterrent. (Iran, for its part, claims that its nuclear program is for power production only.)
European officials urged the Bush administration to include security assurances in the incentives package offered to Iran, but the White House flatly refused. This unwillingness to consider security assurances is worrisome and indicates that administration officials believe that the threat or actual use of military force remains a viable option in Iran.
Military analysts have argued that a U.S. attack against Iran, even if initially confined to air strikes, would have disastrous consequences. Iranian officials have vowed to retaliate and have threatened to take action first against Israel. Iranian retaliation could cause enormous difficulty for U.S. troops in Iraq. Oil shipments in the region might be disrupted, causing further price increases. Hatred toward the United States in the Muslim world would intensify, causing further setbacks in global efforts to stem the jihadist terror threat.
Military action would not work anyway. Iran has hardened and widely dispersed its nuclear facilities, which means that at least some of its capabilities would survive even the most intensive air strikes. Iran’s determination to build nuclear weapons would intensify. Only a full-scale U.S. invasion and occupation could guarantee Iran’s disarmament, but that option is impossible militarily and unthinkable politically.
THE NUCLEAR standoff with Iran exposes the weaknesses and contradictions in current U.S. nonproliferation policy. Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) guarantees nations such as Iran the right to develop a civilian nuclear industry, including a nuclear fuel cycle. The treaty prohibits the use of such facilities for weapons purposes, but as Iraq, India, Pakistan, and other countries have demonstrated, the technologies, scientific know-how, and materials employed in nuclear reactors can also be used for building bombs. The promotion of one system confers the capability of developing the other.
Iran and other developing countries consider the current nonproliferation regime grossly unjust and discriminatory. Iran is denied the right to develop uranium enrichment capabilities that are available to other countries. It is threatened with coercive pressure when it is still several years away from developing the possibility of a bomb.
Meanwhile other nations that have violated nonproliferation norms get a pass. Pakistan and India already have the bomb, and are acquiring ever more sophisticated delivery systems, yet instead of facing threats, they are being rewarded. Pakistan receives large amounts of U.S. military and economic assistance, while India is offered U.S. supplies of nuclear fuel and technology in ways that would weaken nonproliferation standards. Israel has a substantial nuclear weapons capability and receives vast amounts of economic and military assistance from the United States.
Many countries condemn the hypocrisy of nuclear weapons states preaching nuclear abstinence while clinging to these weapons for themselves. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei likens this to telling others not to smoke while a cigarette is dangling from your lip.
The NPT system was built on a bargain in which non-nuclear nations agreed to forego the bomb, while the U.S. and other nuclear weapons powers pledged to proceed toward disarmament. While the United States and Russia have greatly reduced their previously bloated nuclear arsenals, neither country has made a commitment to eliminate these weapons. On the contrary, both countries plan to retain nuclear weapons indefinitely. Russia is building new weapons delivery systems, while the United States is planning new production facilities to maintain and upgrade its arsenal. The United States and the other nuclear weapons states believe they can maintain the current system of nuclear apartheid in perpetuity. The actions of Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and now Iran suggest that this will not be possible.
The security concerns of individual countries like Iran cannot be treated in isolation. They are linked to regional and global security dynamics. Iran will be more likely to accept nonproliferation standards for itself if there is progress toward denuclearization across the region. The goal of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction has been affirmed many times in international declarations and U.N. Security Council decisions, including the Gulf war cease-fire resolution of 1991. A Middle East nuclear-free zone should be supported again now as a key element of security and nonproliferation throughout the region and globally.
Washington’s willingness to consider diplomacy has created an opportunity to resolve the Iranian standoff without war. Reaching an agreement will require a readiness to talk with Iran, an easing of economic sanctions, a pledge to refrain from military action, and a commitment to global nuclear disarmament. This is an agenda that can enhance security in Iran and the region and around the world.
David Cortright, a Sojourners contributing writer, is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum.