How to Get Out of the Iran Trap

By Anatol Lieven
Special to
Wednesday, April 12, 2006; 12:00 AM

The Bush administration's strategy regarding Iran's nuclear program is going nowhere. The U.S. demand that Iran permanently terminate even a limited capacity to enrich uranium has been categorically rejected by every Iranian political figure and group, including all the leading reformists. Given the views on the subject held by both the establishment and the mass of the population, it would be political suicide for them to do otherwise.

Because of the radical difference between the way in which the U.S. and the West treat Iran on the one hand and India, Pakistan and Israel on the other, Western demands have been successfully portrayed in Iran as pressure for yet another "treaty of surrender" of the kind which Western powers forced on Iran in the past. Modern Iranian nationalism originated in fury at such treaties.

It is pointless to dream of a rapid transformation of Iran into a Western-style democracy and a willing supporter of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. By identifying Iranian democrats with submission to America, the present U.S. approach is only damaging them still further in the eyes of most Iranians. The key to changing Iran internally and to producing Iranian co-operation and responsibility in its foreign and security policies therefore must be a slow and incremental approach -- one which will not produce a rapid settlement of the nuclear issue. It also looks virtually impossible for the U.S. to bring sufficient economic pressure to bear on Iran to force an acceptance of U.S. demands, given Iran's revenue from high oil prices and the deeply unwilling stance of Russia and China.

That leaves the military option. But recent weeks have seen repeated warnings by U.S. and British officials and intelligence analysts that such an operation would probably only delay Iran's nuclear program, and might not have any serious effect at all. It would be certain to provoke Iranian retaliation that would drastically worsen the situation in Iraq and possibly destabilize the entire region. In addition, such an attack would most likely greatly intensify Iran's attempts to create nuclear weapons.

As the Truman administration statesman Robert Lovett used to say when faced with this kind of impasse, "Forget the cheese -- let's get out of the trap." The way out of this particular trap is to accept limited Iranian uranium enrichment under strict supervision and focus instead on creating really tough and effective barriers to armament. We need to verifiably freeze Iranian enrichment and other nuclear capabilities at least 18 months short of weapons capacity. This time lag should be sufficient for the U.S. and the international community to receive sufficient warning of Iran's moves and to respond accordingly.

This approach would have a number of great advantages. It would return the U.S. and Europe to the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed by Iran, and prevent the Iranians from claiming that they are being subjected to unfair and illegal discrimination. It would hold the Iranian government to its own repeated public statements that it is not seeking nuclear weapons. And in return for bowing to Russian and Chinese concerns about the present U.S. course, it would allow us to bind these states and the rest of the international community to impose extremely tough sanctions on Iran if that country did in fact violate this agreement and move towards armament.

This international response should be agreed in advance by a public treaty signed by the members of the U.N. Security Council, the G8, and other appropriate international organizations. All the existing nuclear powers say that they are strongly opposed to Iran gaining nuclear weapons, and we can believe them. The last thing they want is to expand their exclusive club and thereby diminish their own prestige. What's more, they all know that if Pakistan is followed into the nuclear club by Iran, then Saudi Arabia, Turkey and so on, then the chances that sooner or later terrorists will get their hands on such weapons or materials will be vastly increased.

So we have every basis on which to go to Russia and China and say: We will go back to the letter of the NPT if you will sign a binding international agreement setting out in public, in detail, and in advance what you and the other signatory nations will do if Iran breaks its word and does indeed attempt nuclear armament. These threats should include breaking off diplomatic relations, removing Iran from all international organizations, ending outside investment, imposing a full trade embargo, ending -- as far as possible - all international flights to Iran, and inspecting transport headed to that country.

As far as Russia is concerned, the U.S. should offer an additional incentive to sign, and add a very serious threat. The incentive should be that Russia could be allowed to boost its international prestige (and of course the domestic image of the Putin administration) by taking the public lead in this matter. The resulting international agreement could be signed in Russia and entitled something like "The Moscow Declaration."

The threat would be that the U.S. would make Russia's adherence to its word on this question the top determinant of future U.S.-Russian relations. If Iran built nuclear arms and Russia failed to respond as promised, the U.S. would retaliate across the whole range of relations, from trade links to NATO expansion.

All of this doubtless sounds horribly radical to much of the Washington establishment of today. But I don't think Robert Lovett and his colleagues of 60 years ago would have seen it that way. They would have called this kind of approach simply intelligent and effective diplomacy -- something that American administrations were once very good at, and which the Bush administration should start practicing again.


Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. and co-author, with John Hulsman (Heritage Foundation), of "Ethical Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy", which is to be published by Random House in Fall 2006, and which deals amongst other things with U.S.-Iranian relations.

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