Four inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in the North Korean capital Pyongyang Thursday to begin dismantling the country's nuclear weapons program. If the IAEA mission succeeds, it will gradually bring the North Koreans out of their pariah state and allow them to join the international community.
One of the top negotiators who helped advance the six-party process that made this possible is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. In a recent speech he gave at the Center for National Policy in Washington, Mr. Richardson drew parallels between North Korea and Iran. "This process is far from complete, and could still be derailed," said Mr. Richardson. "But our discussions with North Korea demonstrated how skillful diplomacy, grounded in bipartisan cooperation and international alliances, can strengthen our national security."
Mr. Richardson said he mentioned the example of North Korea because he believes the same peaceful approach can be applied to Iran. The governor of New Mexico realizes he is "under no illusions that achieving similar goals with Iran will be easy," but he remains convinced a concerted diplomatic effort, in conjunction with tough sanctions, and with the help of the United States' international partners, stands "an excellent chance of persuading Iran to forgo nuclear weapons." Success could come provided the initiative is grounded in bipartisan cooperation at home, he added.
Mr. Richardson stressed that one of the conditions on talking to Iran must be that the United States sets no preconditions. The Democratic presidential candidate blamed the Bush administration for lecturing Iran's leaders, telling them what they could and could not do before sitting down and talking with them. He called this policy "counterproductive."
"Talking without preconditions does not mean backing off one inch over fundamental objectives, such as ensuring that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons," said Mr. Richardson. "Preventing Iran from going nuclear will require strong diplomacy... and realism. We must remember that no nation has ever been forced to renounce nukes — but many have been persuaded to do so with a combination of carrots and sticks."
The key to successful negotiations with Iran, he says, is to convince the Iranians "they will be better off and more secure without nukes than with them." Iran also needs to be given a "face-saving" exit.
Taking lessons from the Cold War, Mr. Richardson stresses that deterrence is a matter of clarity and credibility. "We need to be absolutely clear that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, and we need to be absolutely credible when we say what we will do about it if the Iranians continue to disregard the will of the international community.
"The clear message must be this: Develop nukes and you will face devastating global sanctions. Desist from developing nukes and you will receive meaningful rewards, including robust security guarantees and guaranteed supplies of nuclear fuel from abroad."
This sort of argument, says Mr. Richardson, leaves no room for doubt. "This sort of engagement, with a stick in one hand and a carrot in the other, is how we got Libya to renounce nukes, and this is how we must approach Iran."
Mr. Richardson outlines "at least six major reasons why Iran is strategically significant":
(1) Because of its nuclear ambitions.
(2) The role Iran plays in the stability of Iraq.
(3) The support the Islamic Republic offers groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, who in turn are obstacles to the stability of Lebanon and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
(4) Iran's important role as a major oil and gas producer.
(5) Iran's strategic control of the Straits of Hormuz.
(6) Finally, its influence as a leader of the world's Islamic Shi'ite population.
U.S.-Iranian relations have not been helped by events such as the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when Iranian students held 52 American diplomats for 444 days. This incident, Mr. Richardson reminds us, "has poisoned relations between the United States and Iran for nearly 30 years."
"We must have no illusions about President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad — a dangerous man with truly reprehensible views." But, Mr. Richardson adds, the United States must have the courage to admit its own errors, such as the support the country gave "the shah's repressive regime," the support it gave Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and the silence when Saddam used chemical weapons against Iran. "Both we and the Iranians need to acknowledge this difficult shared history, and work to get beyond it."
Mr. Richardson points out that despite the radical views espoused by many of Iran's rulers, "Iran has some elements of a modern democracy."
Iranians want the right to civilian nuclear technologies; stability on their borders; they want to be free of external security threats, either from within the region (Israel) or outside the region (the United States), says Mr. Richardson. But he adds, Iran must start respecting U.N. resolutions and stop supporting international terrorists. And "President Ahmadinejad needs to stop threatening Israel and denying the Holocaust."
He quoted Yitzhak Rabin, who used to say, "You make peace with your enemies, not your friends." [The late Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated in 1995 for negotiating the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.]
"If our diplomacy is solid and smart, we can help them make better choices than they have in the past.," Mr. Richardson said.
Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.