Bringing Iran in From the Cold

By Nader Mousavizadeh
Thursday, May 21, 2009

A fateful consensus is forming around the proposition that war with Iran is inevitable. The failure of the past eight years' non-diplomacy has resulted in a worst-case scenario whereby Iran, most experts agree, has passed the point of no return in terms of technical nuclear weapons capability without violating its legal obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Witness, then, the remarkable display of Arab-Israeli unity at the White House: Monday's message from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about existential threats echoing Arab warnings about the Persian menace on the horizon. Palestine is passé, Iran is in -- and the great debate, we are now to believe, concerns whether the road to Tehran runs through Jerusalem or vice versa.

As a rising regional power with a record of sponsoring Hezbollah and Hamas as agents of influence, Iran is using every weapon -- symmetrical and asymmetrical -- to disrupt the established order. Answering this challenge without war will require a diplomatic shift beyond mere engagement.

By focusing on the means of Iran's ascendancy -- its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas -- we are avoiding the vital question of ends. Concentrating on capabilities instead of intentions, we are missing the far more consequential opportunity to challenge the Iranian regime to a real debate about the country's legitimate place in the regional security architecture and the deeply illegitimate ways Tehran seeks to achieve it.

In other words, it's not about the bomb.

And yet preventing Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons status has gained dangerously totemic status as a national security aim of the United States and its allies. Leave aside the possibility that an Israeli government disinclined toward a two-state solution would find reason to direct the world's focus away from Gaza. Ignore, too, the likelihood that Arab regimes struggling to justify their rule may be keen to change the subject. The United States remains captive to three decades of Cold War thinking where Iran is concerned, and nothing in the new administration's policy suggests a shift as fundamental as the one required.

While the Obama administration appears likely to resist the near-term pressure for military action (not least because of its preoccupation with the creeping Talibanization of Pakistan, Iran's already nuclear-armed neighbor to the east), its mix of rhetorical innovation and policy continuation is unlikely to produce a different outcome.

This presents a timeline of a war foretold: Over the next few months, a set of U.S. diplomatic gestures will probably be met with skepticism and stalling in Tehran. New and alarming intelligence about possible covert nuclear programs will surface, accompanied by a step-up in Hamas and Hezbollah activity. The administration will conclude that its outstretched hand has been met with the familiar fist and will seek U.N. support for crippling sanctions. As Russia and China decline to join a meaningful sanctions regime, proponents of military action will argue that all other options have been exhausted. War will be upon us.

To avoid this calamity, we need to reverse our starting point in engagement -- away from the bomb and Iran's sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas -- and discard the notion that bigger sticks and bigger carrots will alter Tehran's strategic calculus. Our goal should be a new geostrategic environment in the Persian Gulf, in which Iran has fewer reasons to pursue overt nuclear weapons status, and in which it won't trigger a cascade of conflict if it nonetheless decides to do so. Rather than allow capabilities over which we have little control to force our hand, we should seek a new framework of intentions in our diplomacy with Iran.

This means opening direct bilateral talks without preconditions, focused on the many areas of common urgent concern, beginning with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. By building trust through joint efforts in arenas where Iranian and U.S. interests greatly coincide, we can move toward candid acknowledgment of each side's legitimate interests.

From Iran, this would require acceptance of the U.S. regional role; agreement that Hezbollah and Hamas pursue their interests through political, and not military, means; and a return to its previous policy of supporting whatever deal the Palestinians make with Israel. From the United States, this would require recognition of the sources of strategic paranoia in Tehran -- the legacy of its 10-year war with Iraq; being surrounded by nuclear powers, including Pakistan, India, Russia, Israel and the United States; and a 30-year history of antagonism with the world's greatest power. From this can flow acceptance of a legitimate Iranian role in Gulf security brokered by the United States and including Iran's Arab neighbors; and over time, Iran's reintegration into the international community and the lifting of sanctions -- all conditioned upon unequivocal security guarantees for U.S. allies in the region.

A shift of this magnitude in national security policy will require a leap of faith. Pragmatism in foreign policy -- however welcome a tonic after the past eight years -- has its limits, morally and philosophically. In the case of Iran, it is also a strategic dead end. Only a fundamental shift toward a policy of calculated coexistence will ensure the long-term defense of our interests and the security of our allies. It is also the best hope for the people of Iran and their struggle for a modern, free and open society.

The Bush administration fought the battle of capabilities with Iran and lost. The battle of intentions can still be won.

The writer, a special assistant to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan from 1997 to 2003, is a consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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