Too harsh and uncompromising?

Where the West really went wrong in confronting Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Ahmadinejad Iraq 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Ahmadinejad Iraq 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
It has become commonplace to assume that the transition from US president George W. Bush to Barack Obama signals a move away from a unilateral, harsh, uncompromising and even militant approach toward Iran to a newfound willingness to embrace dialogue and engagement on the basis of an acceptance of the current regime. Many seem to believe that the past failures to deal effectively with Iran's nuclear ambitions are due to the uncompromising approach of the Bush administration; they hold high hopes for the new US president who is finally willing to reasonably sort out the problem by sitting down to talk to Iranian leaders on equal standing and with respect. His extended hand to Iran's leaders can be expected to encourage Iran to unclench its fist. But how accurate is this depiction of the past, and how realistic are the hopes that by expressing willingness to negotiate unconditionally, Obama will be in a better position to improve relations with Iran? Most importantly, will this defuse the crisis surrounding Iran's nuclear ambitions? Looking back at the attempts to confront Iran's nuclear activities since 2002, the record of the Bush administration is somewhat different from what is commonly assumed. While the axis of evil statement of January 2002 is repeated over and over to prove Bush's harsh approach toward Iran, his State of the Union of the following year is rarely quoted. In this January 2003 speech Bush set out the logic of "different strategies for different threats" that charted a different course for Iran, one that involved working with other governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency - clearly setting Iran apart from Iraq. Bush subsequently supported the efforts of the EU-3 (Germany, France and Britain) to negotiate with Iran from 2003 to 2005; these efforts were discontinued only when the Europeans became convinced that Iran was not negotiating in good faith. Moreover, even in light of that experience, in May 2006 secretary of state Condoleezza Rice announced that the US would be willing to join direct negotiations with Iran if it suspended uranium enrichment. This became the position of Europe as well, and was thereafter reflected in the UN Security Council resolutions from 2006 to 2008 which demanded that Iran cease uranium enrichment activities and imposed some (not very harsh) economic sanctions. Finally, since March 2008 no further decisions or steps have been taken against Iran, and over the summer of 2008 the US (under Bush) clarified that the military option was no longer even on the table. THE PROBLEMS of past attempts to confront Iran have not been the result of a too harsh approach; quite the opposite is true. Past failures are attributable primarily to a crippling lack of international coordination and determination in applying pressure on Iran for its past deceptions and current noncompliance. More determined pressure could have helped to impress upon Iran that negotiations for a deal would be better than the alternative of continued defiance of the IAEA and the UN Security Council. In fact, the lack of international determination was skillfully exploited by Iran to gain the valuable time it needed to push its nuclear program forward. And even facing Obama's attempt to reach out, Iran continues to stall, playing for time. In a cynical twist, it is trying to turn the tables on the US: Obama's offer of change enables its leaders to shift the burden of proof from Iran to the US. You say you have changed? Prove it. Show us you have changed your policies - maybe start with your policy toward Israel. Obama's policies may still succeed in defusing the nuclear crisis, but in a very different way. Not by getting Iran to back away from its nuclear ambitions and cooperate with the international community on a different basis, but by containing it in the nuclear realm through deterrence, and limiting its potential to cause direct damage with nuclear missiles by beefing up missile defense capabilities throughout the region. But this of course would not indicate success for Obama's new approach - it would rather signify its failure. It would also leave the Middle East exposed to the major fear that states in the region harbor - not a calculated Iranian attempt to strike with nuclear weapons, but rather the enhanced and dangerous regional clout that Iran would gain by achieving nuclear status (whether assumed or proven). Indications of the havoc that Iran can wreak are already being felt region-wide. The writer is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies of Tel Aviv University.