Has President Bush quietly concluded that the United States can live with a nuclear-armed Iran? If this seems preposterous, recall the president's words at his year-end news conference. Asked about U.S. policy toward Iran, he said: "We're relying upon others, because we've sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran . . . in other words, we don't have much leverage with the Iranians right now."
This bizarre statement obviously does not portend the president's born-again conversion to multilateralism. Rather, it is a false assessment of U.S. influence and a potentially deadly recipe for U.S. acquiescence to a nuclear Iran.
Consider what's at stake. Oil-rich Iran is arguably the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism. Iran was behind the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. It is funding anti-Israeli terrorist groups, harboring al Qaeda operatives and meddling in Iraq. Iran clandestinely built a sophisticated uranium enrichment program that the United States and European nations agree is intended to produce nuclear weapons. Iran has missiles capable of delivering such weapons to Iraq, Israel and even parts of Europe.
President Bush says the greatest threat to U.S. national security is a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists. A nuclear Iran, not Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is a truly dangerous manifestation of that threat.
So how has the Bush administration acted to protect us? Overstretched with 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and paralyzed by internal policy disputes, the administration's response has been to posture, threatening to take Iran to the U.N. Security Council, while effectively having no Iran policy at all.
In response to one of the most urgent threats to the United States, Bush has subcontracted American security to the Europeans. Last week the president confirmed this as his approach, arguing that the United States has no choice. "We've sanctioned ourselves out of influence," the president said, almost echoing Vice President Cheney, who as chief executive of Halliburton pressed for lifting U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Britain, France and Germany recently negotiated a fragile, temporary suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment activities. Some U.S. officials have trashed the E.U. effort as toothless and certain to fail. Others hail it as the cornerstone of the U.S. approach. The logic of this contradiction is that the president expects the Europeans to fail but refuses to help them succeed or to offer an option of his own.
The United States was right to unilaterally impose sanctions on Iran when our allies would not go along. But U.S. sanctions do not eliminate U.S. influence over Iran. Leverage can take the form of carrots as well as sticks. Historically, the United States, working with others, has influenced several states living under sanctions to change course -- from Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa to Libya. Sanctions are no excuse for U.S. inaction.
President Bush should take no option off the table with Iran, including the use of force. But he should start by testing the potential of negotiations to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program. No deal can be made with the Iranians without the United States offering significant incentives. Nor is Iran likely to make concessions without the credible threat of the Europeans and the Japanese imposing tough multilateral economic sanctions should negotiations fail.
At the bargaining table, the United States could dangle various incentives the Iranians might find attractive. For instance, in exchange for a full and verifiable halt to Iran's nuclear program as well as termination of its support for terrorism and anti-U.S. elements in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States could offer to lift U.S. sanctions; normalize relations; pay some Iranian claims against the United States; promote new trade and investment flows; allow Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization; guarantee access to civilian nuclear power; or provide regional security guarantees.
This approach demands more of the United States than abdication to European diplomacy. It requires U.S. leadership, in partnership with the Europeans, of a complex and urgent negotiation with Iran. Apparently, President Bush finds this prospect too difficult or too uncomfortable.
True, the United States faces tough realities and even tougher policy choices. Iran may be determined to acquire nuclear weapons. If so, negotiations will ultimately fail. But we cannot know this unless we try. In any case, we cannot get Europe to apply sanctions against an Iran destined to go nuclear until we've done our best to negotiate a solution.
Negotiations require making concessions. Neoconservatives argue that such concessions would help sustain the current Islamist government, but most analysts agree that the regime is well entrenched. The alternative to negotiating is for the United States to continue to do nothing. By doing nothing, our self-described wartime president is in fact doing something quite significant: He is ensuring there will be no effective brake on Iran, along with North Korea, going fully nuclear.
The writer, assistant secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, is a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.