Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Case for Negotiating with the Mullahs

Jean Fran├žois-Poncet, International Herald Tribune:
While the skies of trans-Atlantic relations have become almost blue again, there persists a very serious disagreement that Condoleezza Rice, in the course of her well-received visit to Europe, either could not or did not want to resolve: Iran's nuclear program.

There is no doubt that this problem and the disagreements it creates will figure strongly in the talks President George W. Bush is about to hold with Europeans.

The difference is not over the desired result, but over how to achieve it. Neither Europeans nor Americans have any doubt about the military character of the Iranian program, nor about the unacceptable threat it poses not only to Israel, but to security and stability in the entire Middle East. They also agree that Iran's declarations, no matter how solemn, and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency are not enough to guarantee that the program remain civil. That kind of certainty can come only from the renunciation by Iran of all activities linked to the enrichment of uranium and the separation of plutonium.

To achieve this assurance, France, Britain and Germany, with the support of their European partners, have chosen the path of negotiations. Not, as it is thought in Washington, out of appeasement or weakness, but because they believe that Iran aspires to escape from its economic and political isolation and is prepared to pay a high price to do so. Iran's industry is obsolete, and its economy is incapable of providing jobs for the 800,000 young people who enter the work force every year, forcing the best to leave the country. ...

But it has become increasingly clear that this interest will translate into an agreement only if the United States becomes involved in the process, directly or indirectly. The economic opening that Iran seeks requires, in effect, at least a partial lifting of the American embargo, which prevents Europe from delivering the equipment, notably the Airbus, and the advanced technologies that Iran wants. It is also obvious that Iran's application for membership in the World Trade Organization has no hope without Washington's support. What Europe can offer on its own is not on the same level as the concessions it demands of Iran.

Condoleezza Rice wished the Europeans the best of luck, which was a departure from the skepticism shown up until then by the Americans. But best wishes are not enough, and there is nothing to indicate that on Iran, the United States is disposed to go any further. The justifiable antagonism that the ayatollahs inspire with their disregard for human rights, discrimination against women or support of Hezbollah and Hamas pushes the United States toward "regime change" as the political priority. Thus the refusal to negotiate, and the temptation to seek immediate Security Council sanctions, and then to proceed, if necessary, to the destruction of Iran's nuclear installations.

Would that weaken the regime? Probably not. More likely, Iranian public opinion, which may be hostile to the religious authorities but remains intensively nationalistic, would rally around the regime and against the West. The Iranian opposition, led by Shirin Ebadi, whose courageous struggle for human rights won her a Nobel Peace Prize, has publicly warned Washington against the politics of force.

What's more, while it is incontestable that the regime in Tehran is unpopular, that does not mean it is fragile. The regime has a totally loyal praetorian guard of 150,000 men in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and with immense oil resources, it can placate malcontents with lavish handouts - which it does not hesitate to do.

That is why the only way out of this dilemma is for the United States to give the European-led negotiations every chance. If they succeed, they will eliminate the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program while opening Iran to the world and obliging it to liberalize its economy, which is probably the best way in the medium term to weaken the religious regime.

If they fail, which is entirely possible, the Europeans will willingly rally around sanctions. And if Iran's nuclear sites are eventually destroyed, there will be less of a backlash, inside or outside Iran.

(Jean Fran├žois-Poncet, a member of the French Senate, is a former foreign minister of France.)
The Europeans seem to forget that Iran's nuclear negotiator has warned there was nothing the West could offer Tehran that would persuade it to scrap a nuclear programme.