A visitor to Washington this Thanksgiving week might well feel caught in a time warp: The CIA is warning about a Middle Eastern country's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction; Europeans are pushing a plan for inspections and international monitoring; the Bush administration is talking tough; and neoconservative hawks are thumping for military action.
It is, as foreign policy expert Yogi Berra would put it, a case of "déjà vu all over again." But this time, the weapons of mass destruction menace is Iran. And the question for the Bush administration, struggling with a difficult and still-unfinished war of preemption against Iraq, is how to get it right the second time around.
The best advice I've heard for dealing with Iran comes from former CIA analyst David Kay. He's the man who finally uncovered the truth about Iraq's weapons program -- namely that, contrary to the expectations of nearly every intelligence service, it had been dismantled. Kay offered his analysis this week at a conference on Iran hosted by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
Kay argues that, after the Iraq weapons blunder, it's important to level with the world about the quality of our intelligence. He distinguishes carefully between "what we know," "what we think we know" and "what we don't know."
Somewhere between the first two categories is an American belief, shared by our key European allies, that Iran has been pursuing a covert program to develop nuclear weapons. As a CIA report issued this week put it, "The United States remains convinced that Tehran has been pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, in contradiction to its obligations as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."
So what should the international community do about Iran's nuclear ambitions? The debate has been polarized between the European good-cop approach of offering economic carrots to Iran if it will agree to slow its program and an American bad-cop stance that implicitly threatens Iran with military sticks. Kay argues that this is a false choice and that a wise policy should combine the two -- in ways that would serve the interests of both Iran and the West.
Kay contends that the Iranian nuclear issue is not, for the moment, an either/or question -- of carrots or sticks, of diplomacy or military action, of tolerating Iranian weapons or preempting them. A rational policy is somewhere in between those poles.
"Inspections by themselves are never a solution," Kay says. There will always be "inspection ambiguity," as there was in Iraq. And Kay thinks it would be a mistake to take the threat of military action off the table, as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw seemed to do in a recent statement.
Kay argues that recent diplomatic efforts by Britain, France and Germany -- which won a pledge by Iran to temporarily stop enriching uranium -- should be seen as a "temporary bridge" for a serious negotiation that must include the United States. The European diplomacy is important, he says, not as an end in itself but because "it opens a window to start a strategic discussion with Iran about its future."
Kay notes that such dialogues have steered other nuclear-capable countries away from actually producing weapons, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil, Switzerland, Sweden and Belgium. Sometimes the key interlocutor has not been America but a third country; in the case of Japan, for example, a key role was played by China.
This dialogue might not permanently prevent Iran from producing weapons. The nuclear issue has become fused with Iranian nationalism to such an extent that a large majority of Iranians, young and old, moderate and hard-line, want their country to join the elite nuclear club. But if a combination of carrots and sticks can slow Iran's race to acquire a bomb, and check Iranian paranoia about the United States, that's of benefit in itself. "Delaying Iran is a success," stresses Kay. It gives time for Iran to mature and for the Iranian people to experience the economic benefits of cooperation with the West.
"We need to engage," argues Kay. Leaving diplomacy to the Europeans and military threats to the United States would repeat the Iraq mistake. In Iranian eyes, America is both the danger and the prize; the same could be said of American views about Iran. If ever there was an analogy to China in the years before Henry Kissinger's famous secret diplomacy, this is it.
The challenge for the Bush administration is to see if it can craft what Kay calls a "yes-able proposition" for Tehran. If that initiative fails, as it may well, there will be time to contemplate grimmer options.