- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

If the British don’t go along with us on Iran, we may have to go it alone without our old allies and faithful friends. The French don’t feel too strongly about Iran’s nuclear program. They have been bribed.

The Chinese and Indians aren’t too upset about nukes in Iran. They need the Iranians for oil. The Russians find in Iran a traditional trading partner. Much of Iran’s nuclear technology was made in Moscow. The Russians are unlikely to make much of a fuss.

The Germans, quite ironically, get upset when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says he wants to wipe Israel off the map and resettle its Jews in Germany and Austria. But the Germans have no military muscle and don’t want to rub Tehran the wrong way.

Even the Israelis, whose hard-liners say will not tolerate a “final solution” at the hands of Iran, are largely silent. They know they lack the planes and ordnance to take out Iran’s nuclear installations.

That leaves us with a big headache. We need bold and creative diplomacy.

Mr. Ahmadinejad says his nuclear program, in which he seeks to develop full-cycle enrichment technology, is as peaceful as it is nonnegotiable. We might believe this if Iran were not already sufficient in energy, and if Mr. Ahmadinejad did not appear to be a such a scary guy. During his September U.N. speech, in which he raged against what he called America’s policy of “nuclear apartheid” and demanded Iran be entitled to its own full-fledged nuclear program, he laid claim to enlightenment, saying he was bathed in a “light” even as he spoke, and the world leaders stared at him “as if paralyzed.” The prime minister of Sweden, he’s not.

We could try U.N. Security Council sanctions, as we have, but we know they will be watered down and ineffective. We could shoot for regime change, and maybe the CIA could find someone to take out Mr. Ahmadinejad. But the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, and the reformers who oppose their fanatical president also want Iran in the nuclear club.

We could, of course, decide to do nothing. But if Iran gets the bomb, it will change the strategic equation and make it much more difficult to deal with on the four issues dearest to U.S. hearts — terror (Iran sponsors terror in Lebanon and Palestine; refuses to release al Qaeda operatives in Iranian custody), Iraq (where, reportedly, more than 2,000 Iranian operatives are on the ground aiding the insurgency), oil and democratization, not to mention Israel. And the world will have become much more dangerous.

So how do we meet the challenge of an adversary so determined to undermine U.S. interests? Henry Kissinger has said we have no military option, and he may well be right.

Any decision to use force against Iran is fraught with peril. If we surgically take out Mr. Ahmadinejad’s surface and subterranean nuclear installations in a “preventive” strike (not “pre-emptive” as on Iraq), how do the Iranians respond? Surely, they will try to rebuild: Experts say that can be done in three to four years. Then, one can readily conceive of a parade of unintended consequences the U.S. would have to absorb — perhaps a terrorist strike against the United States, a retaliatory attack on Iraq, Saudi Arabia or even Israel.

Iran has more than 2,000 sea mines, with which Tehran’s navy could readily shut down the crucial Straits of Hormuz. “That would drive the global economy into the cellar,” warns Michael Mazarr of the Washington-based National War College.

Then what would the U.S. do? There would be the prospect of a major military confrontation. Would we invade Iran to take out the regime and its command and control? Would we use nuclear weapons? Would we level Tehran and Isfahan, Tabriz and Shiraz? Would our actions radicalize the moderates in Iran opposed to Mr. Ahmadinejad?

What would be the effect on the already high level of anti-Americanism in the world? And what would be the political support at home, where the president’s apparent failures in Iraq have driven his approval ratings into the cellar?

A major military option launching a vicious cycle of confrontation is almost too sobering to contemplate. But how can negotiations achieve anything if a credible military option is off the table?

One thing we know: The current standoff cannot go on indefinitely.

Iran’s hostility to the United States is deep-seated. Iranians remember our role in removing their premier, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953 and replacing him with the Shah. They recall we sided with Saddam Hussein in Iran’s war with Iraq. If they wanted to make a case for U.S. hostility, they might point to policies of economic containment; asset freezes; exclusion from the World Trade and other international organizations; Mr. Bush identifying Iran as part of the “axis of evil”; and our call for a “regime change” that would oust Mr. Ahmadinejad, like Mossadegh, their elected leader.

So how do we get out of the box? President Kennedy counseled: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” There have been many proposals, many unconvincing, for a viable diplomatic option to break the impasse. Not to deny the complexity of the problem, I would argue, as others have, for a blended approach looking to a staged engagement with Iran.

• The basic problem is process. For two decades, we have communicated with the Iranians via back channels and intermediaries. Let us try for direct communication with a view to eventual diplomatic relations.

• Seek to agree with them on a broad framework for negotiations like the 1972 Shanghai Communique, wherein Richard Nixon opened the door to China, in which neither side initially agrees to anything other than to discuss problems of mutual interest, however elusive the solutions may prove. The overture might be accomplished under the auspices of the U.N. or perhaps moderate Arab countries concerned about nuclear weapons in an already unstable region.

• Try to get both sides to commit to compromise rather than seeing each proposal by one side as an insult to the other’s machismo.

• Try to avoid unintended consequences in the statements and policies advocated by both sides. Let’s not let overblown rhetoric demonizing the other side defeat our basic purposes.

• Although all roads must inevitably lead to the bomb, try to open the dialog on a number of issues simultaneously. The Iranians don’t like terrorism either. Presumably, they want a stable economy that would come from nonisolation, trade agreements, new markets and diversified exports. The issue for them is what they would rather have: a stable economy, a terror-free neighborhood and no bomb, or a bomb and an isolated, unstable state with a regime that must surely be overthrown if it fails to satisfy its people’s social and economic needs. While we may “agree to disagree” on some issues, we must eventually come to terms with Iran on nuclear weapons. Otherwise, the initiative fails.

• Recognize there will be no quick fix and progress will take time. It is unlikely Iran will agree near term about Israel, Hamas or Hezbollah.

• Quietly, but unmistakably, leave our military option on the table, and be prepared to use it as a last resort. If we do not lead from strength, we are unlikely to accomplish anything.

However difficult it is to find a solution, the stakes for the world order are too awesome to contemplate. The greatest danger would be to do nothing. Disaster must not become irretrievable.

James D. Zirin, an attorney in New York, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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