US-Iranian tango

While Iran deeply resents the US telling it what to do, it doesn't want to become a pariah.

September 1, 2008 21:09
3 minute read.
US-Iranian tango

AhMADinejad 224.88. (photo credit: AP [file])

For the first time, a senior US official has participated in negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue. Other officials have recently floated the idea of establishing an interests section in Teheran. Hopefully, these are early portents of an evolving US-Iran dialogue and a possible means of averting the looming confrontation. To date, Iran has shown no inclination to reach a negotiated end to its nuclear program, and Western inducements to do so through increasingly stringent sanctions have only heightened its bellicosity. Iran may, however, be starting to feel the bite, as the West has finally started to apply some sanctions of consequence and it has become increasingly apparent that continued defiance only assures greater pressure. Iran, a highly respectable member of the international community in its own eyes and the proud bearer of an ancient heritage, deeply resents a 232-year-old "upstart" presuming to tell it what to do. Nevertheless, it also doesn't want to become an international pariah, subject to serious sanctions. For all its bluster, Teheran is fully cognizant of the real balance of power. IRAN HAS good strategic reasons for wanting a military nuclear capability; it is not simply a whim of the mullahs. It is thus questionable whether any combination of inducements, positive and negative, can convince it to forgo its program. We will only know, however, if the attempt is made. If it is, only a "grand bargain" - rapproachment with the US, an end to the threat of regime change, integration into the world economy and some limited, fully safeguarded civil nuclear program - may, just may, be a sufficient incentive. It probably will not, but it's worth trying. Engagement with Iran does not constitute appeasement, nor a slippery slope leading to further concessions. It can be these things if mishandled, but there is no reason for it to be anything other than a coherent, integrated policy. A policy based solely on sticks, without carrots, will surely fail. Engagement, however, should be conducted from a position of strength, with a concomitant attempt to increase pressure, such as heightened restrictions on international trade, banking and investments. Iran is likely to demonstrate flexibility, if at all, only in the face of true Western resolve to take severe measures. The time line is short, but Iran must be convinced that a failure to cut a deal will lead to truly painful sanctions even at a time of tight oil markets, such as a ban on exports of refined gasoline products to Iran, which comprise 40 percent of its domestic consumption, and even to a ban on imports of Iranian crude, which account for 80% of its national budget. The only alternative may be military action, beginning with a unilateral US naval blockade and, as a last resort, an American or Israeli attack. THE MEDIA have recently been rife with reports of an Israeli exercise simulating an attack on Iran, as well as dramatically overblown assessments of the "disastrous" consequences of military action. While Iran will undoubtedly retaliate if attacked, its options, at least vis-a-vis the US, are limited, though certainly not painless. Given strategic realities, Iran will probably choose to respond primarily against Israel, opening up with virtually everything it and its Hizbullah and Hamas allies have. Israel should be ready to pay the price of an attack if a significant delay in the Iranian nuclear program can be achieved. Those who fear a more severe response against the US as well should be especially supportive of the punitive economic measures suggested above. Only a serious US engagement will convince domestic and international opinion that all peaceful options have been exhausted and that a blockade, or even a military strike, is necessary. Israel, which views nukes in Iran as an existential threat, may respond to a US-Iranian "tango" with deep concern, if not a feeling of abandonment. Upon further reflection, however, it may understand that a tango may best serve its interests, even if a "hora" is not in the cards - Iran's enmity runs too deep for that. A US dialogue, however, may just provide an opening for a freeze of Iran's nuclear program. If not, it will at least lay the groundwork for the more radical measures that may then be required. The writer, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is now a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School and a Schusterman Fellow.

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