Another Pitch to Iran

Thursday, May 11, 2006

IT WAS HARD not to be struck by the sequence of developments on Iran on Monday. First, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dispatched a letter to President Bush suggesting that the West give up on liberal democracy and join those who "are turning to the teachings of religion"; also, that it disclose what the Iranian leader supposes is the involvement of "intelligence and security services" in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and rethink its support for Israel. Hours later the Bush administration agreed to support a European plan to postpone action by the U.N. Security Council on Iran's nuclear program and reopen negotiations with Mr. Ahmadinejad's government. As the French foreign minister put it, "It seems stupid for us not to stretch out our hand."

We'll assume the new Western offer was not prompted by Mr. Ahmadinejad's letter. Still, in light of a manifesto that sounds more like those of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi than of a government interested in detente, it's worth asking: What exactly do the Bush administration and its allies hope to achieve through the latest proffer? Iran brusquely rejected a previous European offer just last August; since then it has steadily ramped up its work on enriching uranium, even as its government has mobilized for a confrontation with the West. European governments loudly promised there would be consequences for such action. Now, faced with Russian and Chinese resistance to the first substantive step -- a binding Security Council resolution that would not mandate sanctions -- they have decided that bargaining should be tried again.

U.S. officials say that this time, the approach to Iran will be different. Offers of trade concessions and technology will be paired with the concrete threat of sanctions if Iran refuses to halt its nuclear work. The Bush administration's hope is that Russia and China will join in the coalition making the carrot-and-stick pitch -- and that they will agree to passage of a Security Council resolution ordering an end to uranium enrichment at the same time the package is delivered to Tehran. If that happened, the effort to restrain Iran would make an important advance, since until now neither Russia nor China has been prepared to support sanctions, much less join a coalition to threaten them.

Yet it will be crucial to the coming diplomacy that sticks as well as carrots remain in the multilateral initiative. It seems likely that any military action aimed at Iran's nuclear program would inflame the world without ending the threat. That makes it all the more important for nations that don't want Iran to have a nuclear weapon to show that sanctions are a plausible alternative. Administration officials say they will insist on that principle, but in their public statements so far, European ministers have emphasized the carrots. Iran is counting on a split among the allies; Mr. Ahmadinejad's letter was designed to foster it. Until his government is disabused of the notion that there is no cost in defying the West, his response to new offers will be more of the same rhetoric.


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