- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A plethora of political icebergs threaten the Bush administration. The one closing most quickly is Iran and the necessity to contain the nuclear ambitions of a fundamentalist Shi’ite state whose president, to outside ears, often sounds more nuts than naive. The latest collision was over the attempted sale of the management of six U.S. ports to a UAE-owned company. The ineptness of the administration, in failing to anticipate the subsequent political firestorm, provided a craven Congress the political cover to teach the White House a lesson and, in the process, convince much of the world it did so by succumbing to overly hyped anti-Arab fever.

Regarding Iran, three realities should shape our thinking. First, no responsible state wants Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Second, only multilateral action will work to keep Iran from diverting peaceful nuclear power to weapons programs, especially if sanctions are applied. Third, short of a full-scale war, military force can only delay and not prevent Iran from getting the bomb.

Iran insists that its nuclear intentions are peaceful. A majority of Iranians support the pursuit of peacetime nuclear energy, viewing the matter as one of national sovereignty not to be dictated or challenged by outsiders. However, given Iran’s past track record of circumventing oversight by the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA), skepticism and outright disbelief are in order.

Prior to the submission of the IAEA report to the U.N. Security Council on Iran, rhetorical salvos boomed from both American and Iranian political guns. Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney warned of “meaningful consequences” for Iran should it persist with its nuclear ambitions. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saw no greater challenge in the region than Iran. Javaad Veidi, head of Iran’s delegation to the IAEA, fired back that “harm and pain” were a two-way street, with obvious reference to cutting off oil, an action that Iranian Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri Hamaneh later discounted. U.S. policy has been to put pressure on Iran as a prelude to Security Council consideration of the IAEA report even though Britain and Russia, both members of the Security Council, ruled out the immediate use of sanctions, as has China.

A stunning collision is inevitable if the Bush administration’s preference for unilateral action overcomes patience and multilateral diplomacy. Sanctions may prove necessary. However, the international community is far from making that decision now. And should diplomacy fail, what do we do then?

Rather than pursue an “in your face,” axis-of-evil form of coercion using European diplomatic surrogates, a page from Ronald Reagan’s book is instructive. Referring to Berlin, Mr. Reagan directly dared Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “take down that wall.” So, too, we should dare Iran to prove its peaceful intentions. No one opposes Iran having peaceful nuclear programs. But it is up to Iran to convince the world of its peaceful intent, not the reverse. Having IAEA inspectors return is a first step in that journey.

Second, since enrichment of uranium is a current impasse, the proposal to process Iranian nuclear material in Russia is attractive. Alternatively, building an enrichment plant in Iran, owned and run by the Russians or another party and subject to outside, verifiable inspection is an imperfect but possible compromise.

Third, should all efforts fail and Iran, despite its protestations about peaceful uses, proceeds on enriching its own fuel, a mechanism for containing or deterring any weapons ambitions must be constructed. For those who dismiss this notion, during the Cold War, we contained adversaries whom we thought at the time were far more dangerous than Iran and who would go on to possess tens of thousands of nuclear warheads.

The known nuclear states — Britain, France, China, Russia and the United States (and possibly India and Pakistan) — should begin consultations on extending deterrent-like guarantees to the greater Middle East region. French President Jacques Chirac has already hinted that France would not stand idly by to nuclear intimidation by Iran. Should Iran seem to be moving toward acquiring nuclear weapons, these states, either collectively or individually, could place the region under a protective nuclear blanket. The use or threat of use by Iran of nuclear weapons in the region would face consequences from one or more of the other nuclear powers. Consequences in this case mean the prospect of retaliation.

Obviously, the framework and details must be worked out as they were during the Cold War to moderate the inherent contradictions in making any deterrent theory operationally viable. Israel is a wild card as well. However, unless ideas such as these are explored now, later may be too late.

Teddy Roosevelt got it right. “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Those watchwords are as relevant today as they were a century ago. And maybe the time has come for Washington finally to speak directly with Tehran.

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