Deal With Tehran, Not Its Crusade

The Washington Post

Iran's nuclear program and considerable resources enable it to strive for strategic dominance in its region. With the impetus of a radical Shiite ideology and the symbolism of defiance of the U.N. Security Council's resolution, Iran challenges the established order in the Middle East and perhaps wherever Islamic populations face dominant, non-Islamic majorities.

The appeal for diplomacy to overcome these dangers has so far proved futile. The negotiating forum the world has put in place for the nuclear issue is heading for a deadlock. Divisions among the negotiating partners inhibit a clear sense of direction.

The five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany — known as the "Six" — have submitted a package of incentives to get Tehran to end enrichment of uranium as a key step toward putting an end to the weapons program. They have threatened sanctions if their proposal is rejected. Iran has insisted on its "right" to proceed with enrichment, triggering an allied debate about the nature of the sanctions to which the Six have committed themselves. Even the minimal sanctions proposed by Europe's "E-3" (Britain, France and Germany) have been rejected by Russia.

Reluctant to negotiate directly with a member of the "axis of evil," the United States has not participated in the negotiations. But recently Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has announced a reversal of policy. The United States — and she herself — will participate in the nuclear talks, provided Iran suspends its enrichment program while discussions take place.

Tehran, however, has so far shown no interest in negotiating with the United States, either in the multilateral forum or separately. This is because Iran sees no compelling national interest in giving up its claim to nuclear power status, and strong domestic political reasons to persist. Pursuing the nuclear weapons program is a way of appealing to national pride, and it shores up otherwise shaky domestic support. The proposed incentives, even if they were believed, would increase Iran's dependence on the international system that Iran's current leaders reject.

The European negotiators accept the importance of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. But they govern societies increasingly loath to make immediate sacrifices for the sake of the future — witness the difficulty of passing legislation on domestic reform. Europe's leaders know that their publics wouldn't support military action against Iran and would probably prove very shaky in a prolonged political crisis over sanctions.

America's European allies have decided to opt for minimum sanctions because they hope that the mere fact of united action by the Six will give Iran's leaders pause. The conviction expressed by some European diplomats that Iran will not wish to be a pariah nation indefinitely, and will therefore come to an agreement, is probably wishful thinking. As this becomes apparent, the European allies will probably move reluctantly toward escalation of sanctions, up to a point where Iran undertakes a confrontational response. Then they will have to choose between the immediate crisis and the permanent crisis of letting the Iranian nuclear program run free.

The dilemma is inherent in any gradual escalation. If initial steps are minimal, they are presumably endurable (and are indeed chosen for that reason). The adversary may be tempted to wait for the next increment. Thus gradualism may, in the end, promote escalation and make inevitable the very decision being evaded.

Russia's position is more complex. Probably no country — not even the United States — fears an Iranian nuclear capability more than Russia, whose large Islamic population lies just north of the Iranian border. No country is more exposed to the seepage of Iranian nuclear capabilities into terrorist hands or to the jihadist ideological wave that the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, encourages. For that reason, Russia does not want to unleash Iranian hostility on itself without a prospect of probable success.

In addition, Russian attitudes toward the United States have undergone a significant change. There is a lessened commitment to strategic partnership. Suspicion has grown on both sides. The United States fears that Russia is striving to rebuild its imperial influence in what Russia calls the "near-abroad"; Russia believes that America is seeking to pressure the Kremlin to change its domestic policies and to reduce Russia's international influence.

Because of its conviction that Iran will be a formidable adversary and its low assessment of the American effort in Iraq, the Kremlin doubts that the United States has the staying power for a prolonged confrontation with Iran and chooses to avoid manning barricades on which it might be left alone. In consequence, Moscow has shifted its emphasis toward Europe and, on Iran, shares Europe's hesitation. The difference is that if matters reach a final crunch, Russia is more likely to take a stand, especially when an Iranian nuclear capability begins to look inevitable and even more so when it emerges as imminent.

The nuclear negotiations with Iran are moving toward an inconclusive outcome. The Six eventually will have to choose either effective sanctions or the consequences of an Iranian military nuclear capability and the world of proliferation that implies. Military action by the United States is extremely improbable in the final two years of a presidency facing a hostile Congress — though it may be taken more seriously in Tehran. Tehran surely cannot ignore the possibility of a unilateral Israeli strike if all negotiation options close.

More likely, the nuclear issue will be absorbed into a more comprehensive negotiation based on geopolitical factors. It is important, however, to be clear as to what this increasingly fashionable term implies. The argument has become widespread that Iran (and Syria) should be drawn into a negotiating process in the hope of bringing about a change of their attitudes, as happened, for example, in the opening to China a generation ago. This, it is said, would facilitate a retreat by the United States to more strategically sustainable positions.

A diplomacy that excludes adversaries is a contradiction in terms. But the argument on behalf of negotiating focuses too often on the opening of talks rather than on their substance. The fact of talks is assumed to represent a psychological breakthrough. However, the relief supplied by a change of atmosphere is bound to be temporary. Diplomacy — especially with an adversary — can succeed only if it brings about a balance of interests. Failing that, it runs the risk of turning into an alibi for procrastination or a palliative to ease the process of defeat without, however, eliminating the consequences of defeat.

The opening to China was facilitated by Soviet military pressures on China's northern borders; rapprochement between the United States and China implemented an existing common interest in preventing Soviet hegemony. Similarly, the shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East made progress because it was built on a preexisting equilibrium that neither side was able to alter unilaterally.

To the extent that talk becomes its own objective, there will emerge forums without progress and incentives for stonewalling. If, at the end of such a diplomacy, stands an Iranian nuclear capability and a political vacuum being filled by Iran, the impact on order in the Middle East will be catastrophic.

Understanding the way Tehran views the world is crucial in assessing the prospects of a dialogue. The school of thought represented by President Ahmadinejad may well perceive Iranian prospects as more promising than they have been in centuries. Iraq has collapsed as a counterweight; within Iraq, Shiite forces are led by men who were trained in Tehran and spent decades there. Democratic institutions in Iraq favor dominance by the majority Shiite groups. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, trained and guided by Iran, is the strongest military force.

In the face of this looming Shiite belt and its appeal to the Shiite population in northeast Saudi Arabia and along the Persian Gulf, attitudes in the Sunni states — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia — and the Gulf states range from unease to incipient panic. This may explain Ahmadinejad's insolent behavior during his visit to New York. His theme seemed to be: "Don't talk to me about your world order, whose rules we did not participate in making and which we disdain. From now on, jihad will define the rules or at least participate in shaping them."

These attitudes will not be changed simply for the opportunity of talking to the United States. The self-confident Iranian leaders may facilitate a local American retreat but, in their present mood, only for the purpose of turning it into a long-term rout. The argument that Iran has an interest in negotiating over Iraq to avoid chaos along its borders is valid only as long as the United States retains a capacity to help control the chaos. There are only two incentives for Iran to negotiate: the emergence of a regional structure that makes imperialist policies unattractive and the concern that, if matters are pushed too far, America might yet strike out.

So long as Iran views itself as a crusade rather than a nation, a common interest will not emerge from negotiations. To evoke a more balanced view should be an important goal for U.S. diplomacy. Iran may come to understand sooner or later that, for the foreseeable future, it is a relatively poor developing country in no position to challenge all the industrialized nations. But such an evolution presupposes the development of a precise and concrete strategic and negotiating program by the United States and its associates.

With the Sunni states of the region terrified by the Shiite wave, negotiation between Iran and the United States could generate a stampede toward preemptive concessions, unless preceded, or at least accompanied, by a significant effort to rally those states to a policy of equilibrium. In such a policy, Iran must find a respected, but not dominant, place. A restarted Palestinian peace process should play a significant role in that design, which presupposes close cooperation among the United States, Europe and the moderate Arab states. What must not happen is to trade relief from geopolitical pressures for acquiescence in an Iranian military nuclear program. That would mortgage the future, not only for the region but for the entire global order.

Iran needs to be encouraged to act as a nation, not a cause. It has no incentive to appear as a deus ex machina to enable America to escape its embarrassments, unless the United States retains an ability to fill the vacuum or at least be a factor in filling it. America will need to reposition its strategic deployments, but if such actions are viewed as the prelude to an exit from the region, a collapse of existing structures is probable.

A purposeful and creative diplomacy toward Iran is important for building a more promising region — but only if Iran does not, in the process, come to believe that it is able to shape the future on its own or if the potential building blocks of a new order disintegrate while America sorts out its purposes.

© 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.