- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a group of journalists in Washington last week he hoped a diplomatic solution to the crisis with Iran would be found. And if European negotiators get their way, the prince’s wish may yet come true. If … .

If a number of incentives are offered to Iran as part of a proposed “carrots and sticks” package aimed at resolving the crisis created by Tehran’s nuclear quest, diplomats told United Press International.

If the United States supports Iran’s entry into the World Trade Organization; if the U.S. considers selling brand new commercial planes to Iran, who badly needs to upgrade its aging commercial air fleet.

If the inducements included a European light-water reactor to produce nuclear energy.

This new European initiative was proposed to the United States, Russia and China after the EU3 — Britain, France and Germany, who seeking ways to defuse the nuclear crisis peacefully — agreed. Diplomats told UPI they hoped the incentives could eventually kick-start direct talks between Washington and Tehran, who have had no direct exchanges in 25 years. Maybe it’s time they let go of the past, said one diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But the fundamental question remains: Will the United States find it in its national interest to bail out Iran when an extremist, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is president? Mr. Ahmadinejad is a radical who considers himself the spiritual son of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Then consider Israel, and the powerful Jewish lobby, who definitely do not want to see a nuclear-powered Iran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to pick up where the ayatollah left off — exporting the Islamic revolution to the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.

“Iran is looking for a leadership role in the region,” Prince Faisal told journalists at a meeting in Washington Friday. Mr. Ahmadinejad has soared to great popularity, both in Iran and in the Arab world, an anomaly for a Persian Shi’ite leader to find such support among Arabs and Sunnis.

The Iranian president found support at home when he abolished the change every spring to daylight savings time that Iran had adopted since 1990. His antics of “wiping Israel off the map” and denying the existence of the Holocaust won him points among certain Muslim circles.

But it is his defiant stance over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, his facing up to the U.S. and major European powers, which gained him much popular support in the Arab and Islamic world. “Ahmadinejad is popular in the whole Muslim world, from Indonesia to Nigeria, as the man who says ‘No’ to the West,” a senior diplomat told UPI.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s meteoric rise to political stardom “is something that went beyond his wildest dreams,” said a diplomat. Khomeini was popular only among Shi’ites, whereas Mr. Ahmadinejad’s popularity has spread beyond Shi’ites, into the majority mainstream Sunni branch of Islam.

“No one in Iran dares to challenge him,” a senior diplomat told UPI. His popularity does not mean the regime is popular. That in turn should not be misinterpreted to think Iranians would applaud military action against their country. To believe aggressive U.S. and/or Israeli action against Iran will solve the problem is not only erroneous, but naive.

Diplomats told UPI sticks alone will not change Iran’s current policy, which is why there is great need for carrots — incentives — as part of the package. Incentives would include Russia building a nuclear reactor and maybe the Europeans building another. But European companies are afraid of participating in such a project without U.S. assurances lest they find themselves blacklisted in the United States for doing business in Iran.

The wording of any resolution would have to be very carefully selected, allowing the Islamic republic an honorable way out without loss of face. Instead of defining exactly what penalties Tehran could face if it refuses to abide by the United Nations Security Council decision, the EU proposal suggests simply pointing out past sanctions on countries that defied the world body, letting Iran imagine which could apply to it. Sanctions could range from denial of visas, to total economic embargo.

But once again, that assumes Iran is not dead set on obtaining nuclear weapons, as many analysts believe they are.

The optimistic view (seen from the West) is that Iran will be guided by its deteriorating social situation. The (limited) Tehran stock market is dropping. The economy is at a stop. Bankers in Dubai report unusual large transfers of funds from Tehran to Dubai, an indication of political uncertainty.

One foreign diplomat called it a “recipe for an explosion,” but added: “We want a change of policy, not regime change. But is that what the U.S. wants?

Will a change of policy work? Can the ayatollahs be made to change their worldviews? One diplomat cites Libya as the example where policy was changed, rather than the regime. True, but the fundamental difference between Libya and Iran is that Moammar Gadhafi is the sole ruler of his country, whereas Iran’s leadership is somewhat more complex, with an elected president, an unelected supreme leader and an elected majlis (parliament).

Prince Faisal’s hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian crisis now hinge on two very fine threads; first assuming the Bush administration has a defined policy on Iran and accepts the terms of the EU proposal; and second that Iran accepts a policy change.

Barring the above, the United States would instead concentrate on bringing about a change of regime.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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