The Next Steps With Iran

The Washington Post

The world's attention is focused on the fighting in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, but the context leads inevitably back to Iran. Unfortunately, the diplomacy dealing with that issue is constantly outstripped by events. While explosives are raining on Lebanese and Israeli towns and Israel reclaims portions of Gaza, the proposal to Iran in May by the so-called Six (the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) for negotiations on its nuclear weapons program still awaits an answer. It's possible that Tehran reads the almost pleading tone of some communications addressed to it as a sign of weakness and irresolution. Or perhaps the violence in Lebanon has produced second thoughts among the mullahs about the risks of courting and triggering crisis.

However the tea leaves are read, the current Near Eastern upheaval could become a turning point. Iran may come to appreciate the law of unintended consequences. For their part, the Six can no longer avoid dealing with the twin challenges that Iran poses. On the one hand, the quest for nuclear weapons represents Iran's reach for modernity via the power symbol of the modern state; at the same time, this claim is put forward by a fervent kind of religious extremism that has kept the Muslim Middle East unmodernized for centuries. This conundrum can be solved without conflict only if Iran adopts a modernism consistent with international order and a view of Islam compatible with peaceful coexistence.

Heretofore the Six have been vague about their response to an Iranian refusal to negotiate, except for unspecific threats of sanctions through the United Nations Security Council. But if a deadlock between strained forbearance by the Six and taunting invective from the Iranian president leads to de facto acquiescence in the Iranian nuclear program, prospects for multilateral international order will dim everywhere. If the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany are unable jointly to achieve goals to which they have publicly committed themselves, every country, especially those composing the Six, will face growing threats, be they increased domestic pressure from radical Islamic groups, terrorist acts or the nearly inevitable conflagrations sparked by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The analogy of such a disaster is not Munich, when the democracies yielded the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, but the response when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. At Munich, the democracies thought that Hitler's demands were essentially justified by the principle of self-determination; they were repelled mostly by his methods. In the Abyssinian crisis, the nature of the challenge was uncontested. By a vast majority, the League of Nations voted to treat the Italian adventure as aggression and to impose sanctions. But they recoiled before the consequences of their insight and rejected an oil embargo, which Italy would have been unable to overcome. The league never recovered from that debacle. If the six-nation forums dealing with Iran and North Korea suffer comparable failures, the consequence will be a world of unchecked proliferation, not controlled by either governing principles or functioning institutions.

A modern, strong, peaceful Iran could become a pillar of stability and progress in the region. This cannot happen unless Iran's leaders decide whether they are representing a cause or a nation — whether their basic motivation is crusading or international cooperation. The goal of the diplomacy of the Six should be to oblige Iran to confront this choice.

Diplomacy never operates in a vacuum. It persuades not by the eloquence of its practitioners but by assembling a balance of incentives and risks. Clausewitz's famous dictum that war is a continuation of diplomacy by other means defines both the challenge and the limits of diplomacy. War can impose submission; diplomacy needs to evoke consensus. Military success enables the victor in war to prescribe, at least for an interim period. Diplomatic success occurs when the principal parties are substantially satisfied; it creates — or should strive to create — common purposes, at least regarding the subject matter of the negotiation; otherwise no agreement lasts very long. The risk of war lies in exceeding objective limits; the bane of diplomacy is to substitute process for purpose. Diplomacy should not be confused with glibness. It is not an oratorical but a conceptual exercise. When it postures for domestic audiences, radical challenges are encouraged rather than overcome.

It is often asserted that what is needed in relation to Iran is a diplomacy comparable to that which, in the 1970s, moved China from hostility to cooperation with the United States. But China was not persuaded by skillful diplomacy to enter this process. Rather, China was brought, by a decade of escalating conflict with the Soviet Union, to a conviction that the threat to its security came less from capitalist America than from the growing concentration of Soviet forces on its northern borders. Clashes of Soviet and Chinese military forces along the Ussuri River accelerated Beijing's retreat from the Soviet alliance.

The contribution of American diplomacy was to understand the significance of these events and to act on that knowledge. The Nixon administration did not convince China that it needed to change its priorities. Its role was to convince China that implementing its strategic necessities was safe and would enhance China's long-term prospects. It did so by concentrating the diplomatic dialogue on fundamental geopolitical objectives, while keeping some contentious items in abeyance. The Shanghai Communique of 1972, the first Sino-U.S. communique, symbolized this process. Contrary to established usage, it listed a series of continuing disagreements as a prelude to the key common objective of preventing hegemonic aspirations of unnamed third parties — clearly implying the Soviet Union.

The challenge of the Iranian negotiation is far more complex. For two years before the opening to China, the two sides had engaged in subtle, reciprocal, symbolic and diplomatic actions to convey their intentions. In the process, they had tacitly achieved a parallel understanding of the international situation, and China opted for seeking to live in a cooperative world.

Nothing like that has occurred between Iran and the United States. There is not even an approximation of a comparable world view. Iran has reacted to the American offer to enter negotiations with taunts, and has inflamed tensions in the region. Even if the Hezbollah raids from Lebanon into Israel and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers were not planned in Tehran, they would not have occurred had their perpetrators thought them inconsistent with Iranian strategy. In short, Iran has not yet made the choice of the world it seeks — or it has made the wrong choice from the point of view of international stability. The crisis in Lebanon could mark a watershed if it confers a sense of urgency to the diplomacy of the Six and a note of realism to the attitudes in Tehran.

Up to now Iran has been playing for time. The mullahs apparently seek to accumulate as much nuclear capability as possible so that, even were they to suspend enrichment, they would be in a position to use the threat of resuming their weapons effort as a means to enhance their clout in the region.

Given the pace of technology, patience can easily turn into evasion. The Six will have to decide how serious they will be in insisting on their convictions. Specifically, the Six will have to be prepared to act decisively before the process of technology makes the objective of stopping uranium enrichment irrelevant. Well before that point is reached, sanctions will have to be agreed on. To be effective, they must be comprehensive; halfhearted, symbolic measures combine the disadvantage of every course of action. Interallied consultations must avoid the hesitation that the League of Nations conveyed over Abyssinia. We must learn from the North Korean negotiations not to engage in a process involving long pauses to settle disagreements within the administration and within the negotiating group, while the other side adds to its nuclear potential. There is equal need, on the part of America's partners, for decisions permitting them to pursue a parallel course.

A suspension of enrichment of uranium should not be the end of the process. A next step should be the elaboration of a global system of nuclear enrichment to take place in designated centers around the world under international control — as proposed for Iran by Russia. This would ease implications of discrimination against Iran and establish a pattern for the development of nuclear energy without a crisis with each entrant into the nuclear field.

President Bush has announced America's willingness to participate in the discussions of the Six with Iran to prevent emergence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. But it will not be possible to draw a line between nuclear negotiations and a comprehensive review of Iran's overall relations to the rest of the world.

The legacy of the hostage crisis, the decades of isolation and the messianic aspect of the Iranian regime represent huge obstacles to such a diplomacy. If Tehran insists on combining the Persian imperial tradition with contemporary Islamic fervor, then a collision with America — and, indeed, with its negotiating partners of the Six — is unavoidable. Iran simply cannot be permitted to fulfill a dream of imperial rule in a region of such importance to the rest of the world.

At the same time, an Iran concentrating on the development of the talents of its people and the resources of its country should have nothing to fear from the United States. Hard as it is to imagine that Iran, under its present president, will participate in an effort that would require it to abandon its terrorist activities or its support for such instruments as Hezbollah, the recognition of this fact should emerge from the process of negotiation rather than being the basis for a refusal to negotiate. Such an approach would imply the redefinition of the objective of regime change, providing an opportunity for a genuine change in direction by Iran, whoever is in power.

It is important to express such a policy in precise objectives capable of transparent verification. A geopolitical dialogue is not a substitute for an early solution of the nuclear enrichment crisis. That must be addressed separately, rapidly and firmly. But a great deal depends on whether a strong stand on that issue is understood as the first step in the broader invitation to Iran to return to the wider world.

In the end, the United States must be prepared to vindicate its efforts to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons program. For that reason, America has an obligation to explore every honorable alternative.