- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

Thanks to the Bush Administration’s muscular diplomacy, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency have leaned on Iran to stop its nuclear weapon program. Iranian leaders now feel general pressure from below — their own citizens — from the west and east where U.S. forces operate in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from Europe. Yet these same pressures, if unaccompanied by positive outlets, will not quash Iranian interests in acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities.

While Iranian leaders are alarmed, the nuclear proliferation problem will not be solved until Iranians of all stripes make a calm strategic decision they don’t need the bomb. Regime change in Tehran, though desirable, will not remove the proliferation threat and the ripples of regional and global insecurity it would cause.

The CIA, echoed by conservative U.S. analysts, has concluded that “No Iranian government, regardless of its ideological leanings, is likely to willingly abandon WMD programs that are seen as guaranteeing Iran’s security.” Reformers as well as hard-liners feel threatened by U.S. domination of the Persian Gulf and world at large. All Iranians remember Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the 1980-88 war, and U.S. complicity in it. Practically all Iranians resent the double standard by which the U.S. embraces nuclear-armed Israel and Pakistan while denying Iran the nuclear cooperation to which it feels entitled. Young Iranian protesters loathe their anti-liberal rulers, but they don’t love Israel or Pakistan or U.S. global hegemony. They embrace the idea of America, not the U.S. government.

To persuade Iranians not to seek nuclear weapon capabilities requires redressing the insecurities and frustrated nationalism felt by a wide spectrum of Iranians, not just hard-liners. After all, it was the friendly Shah who started the Iranian nuclear program as an expression of Persian nationalism.

Even if the street protesters were sufficiently organized to retire the supreme religious and fully empower the elected president and parliament, conservative nationalist elements in Iran would remain strong. So would the nuclear establishment. A new democratic government in Iran would still have to persuade conservative and powerful bureaucracies to abandon under-construction nuclear fuel-cycle plants. Opponents will contest this as a sellout to American-Israeli diktat with what in return?

Since 1970, no full-fledged democracy has decided to give up a nuclear weapon program, while non-democracies have (particularly South Korea, Taiwan, and South Africa). This suggests that the best chance for persuading Iran to abandon nuclear weapon capabilities is for the U.S., the EU and the IAEA to deal with the existing regime in Tehran. The current hard-line Iranian government could make and implement a deal that younger, more liberal successors likely could not.

Iranian factions are now exploring whether there’s a deal to be made. However, they say it makes no sense to deal if the U.S. will pocket their concessions and try to remove them through overt or covert means anyway. They want to know our intentions.

Because regime change may proceed at a slower pace than Iran’s nuclear program, we, too, have an interest in moving now to negotiate a modus vivendi that would accommodate the underlying national interests of the U.S., Iran’s neighbors, Israel and Iran. A modus vivendi reached now would be the foundation of relations with whatever government evolves in Tehran.

Washington’s removal of anti-Iranian governments in Iraq and Afghanistan provide a major opportunity. We should seize it by proposing a regional dialogue with Iran and the other regional states — Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain. The aim would be to integrate Iran and the new Iraq into a new framework of regional security rules, confidence-building measures, and diplomatic forums. Other steps could offer Iran greater access to the international political economy, such as removing U.S. objections to Iran’s entering the World Trade Organization. All of these incentives would depend on Iran’s abandoning weapons of mass destruction capabilities and support of terrorist efforts to destroy the Middle East peace process.

Regime changers in Washington counter that negotiating with Tehran will sell out the democratic opposition. Many Iranian reformers do not agree. They argue that positive U.S. engagement with the current government would break the long-standing, brutally enforced taboo that has kept reformers from interacting freely and openly with American and western counterparts.

The U.S. would not cease advocacy of human rights and political-economic reform and renunciation of terrorism. Rather, by reducing the regional and global threats emanating from the region, Washington would create freer political space for Iranians to work out their internal differences and integrate more fully into modern international society. If Iran’s militant isolationists rejected this opportunity, they would intensify the antagonism of the young reformers and hasten indigenous regime change.

Ultimately, any U.S. strategy must show Iranians that they will be more secure and politically powerful without nuclear weapons. This requires “offering” more than regime change. Why wait?

George Perkovich is a vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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