Sunday, February 13, 2005

Diplomacy and Iran's nuclear weapons

Henry A. Kissinger, San Diego Union Tribune:
If the first term of President Bush was dominated by the war against terrorism, the second will be preoccupied with the effort to stem the spread of nuclear weapons.This challenge is more ambiguous and complex than the first. Do we oppose proliferation of nuclear weapons because of the rogue quality of the two regimes furthest advanced on the road toward acquiring nuclear weapons – Iran and North Korea? Or is our opposition generic – does it extend even to fully democratic countries? How far are we prepared to go in resisting proliferation? And is it possible for one country alone, no matter how powerful, to become the sole custodian of the task of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons? And, if not alone, with what combination of powers should the United States act?

Iran brings home the complexity of these issues with particular urgency. North Korea is an isolated country that makes no significant contribution to the economy of any other; it is, if anything, a drain on any associate seeking to sustain its fragile and oppressive economy. North Korea's neighbors – with the possible exception of South Korea – agree that a nuclear North Korea presents a major, and perhaps unacceptable, security risk. By contrast, Iran is a large oil producer, with a growing, diverse and capable population and a serious industrial potential. By 2050, its population is projected to exceed that of Russia. Several major states have an interest in good relations with Iran for economic reasons; some are afraid of its terrorist potential and demonstrated ruthlessness. Its immediate neighborhood contains some countries that welcome the enhanced risk a nuclear Iran poses for other countries, especially for the United States.

Optimism for progress on eliminating the military nuclear capacity of North Korea can be based on possible pressures of neighboring countries on which it depends economically. The case of Iran is more complex. As the tangled issue moves to the center of international diplomacy, it is important to clarify the strategy on which policy is to be based.

During the Cold War, all of the principals who might have to decide on the issue of nuclear war faced the awful dilemma that such a decision could involve tens of millions of casualties and yet that a demonstrated willingness to run this risk – at least up to a point – was necessary if the world was not to be turned over to ruthless totalitarians.

All Cold War administrations navigated between these shoals. Deterrence worked because there were only two major players in the world. Each made comparable assessments of the perils to them of the use of nuclear weapons. But as nuclear weapons spread into more and more hands, the calculus of deterrence grows increasingly ephemeral and deterrence less and less reliable. It becomes ever more difficult to decide who is deterring whom and by what calculations. Even if it is assumed that aspirant nuclear countries make the same calculus of survival as the established ones with respect to initiating hostilities – an extremely dubious judgment – new nuclear weapons establishments may be used as a shield to deter resistance, especially by the United States, to terrorist assaults on the international order. Finally, the experience with the "private" proliferation network of friendly Pakistan with North Korea, Libya and Iran demonstrates the vast consequences to the international order of the spread of nuclear weapons even when the proliferating country does not meet the formal criteria of a rogue state. For all these reasons, it is the fact, not the provenance, of further proliferation that needs to be resisted. The "loathsomeness" of a regime that undertakes proliferation compounds the problem and provides a sense of urgency, but in this analysis, it is not the decisive factor. We should oppose nuclear proliferation even to a democratic Iran.

This reality is often obscured by two essentially peripheral considerations: Proliferating countries invariably present their efforts as goals to which they have every right to aspire, such as participation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy or enhancing electricity generation. In Iran's case, this is clearly a pretext. For a major oil producer like Iran, nuclear energy is a wasteful use of resources. What Iran really seeks is a shield to discourage intervention by outsiders in its ideologically based foreign policy. This is the main reason why it will be difficult to fashion a package of material incentives to spur denuclearization of Iran. For most foreseeable incentives, in one way or another, increase Iran's dependence on the states against which the proliferation is really directed and probably increase Iran's capacity to threaten them by other means.

At the same time, several European allies treat Iran's nuclear ambitions as at least partially, perhaps largely, defensive. In their view, they spring from Iran's geographic position, wedged as it is between nuclear neighbors or near-neighbors – India, Pakistan, Russia and Israel. They believe that Iran's nuclear impulse can be softened, perhaps even ended, by conciliatory diplomacy. Many of them see in talks with Iran a replay of the issue that they believe underlay the debate over Iraq: the European approach to international relations via law and multilateral institutions vs. the alleged American propensity for pressure.

In fact, the alleged conflict between conciliation and pressure is as unreal as it is standard. Diplomacy is about demonstrating to the other side both the consequences of its actions and the benefits of the alternatives. No matter how elegantly phrased, diplomacy by its very nature implies an element of and a capacity for pressure. One reason why European negotiators have made the limited progress they have on the nuclear issue with Iran is the implied threat of actions America might take in case of deadlock. The key issue between the United States and Europe should not be over the necessity of pressure if diplomacy fails but the definition of it, the timing, and precisely by what process that pressure is designed to lead to a non-nuclear Iran.

It is in that context that the proposition that regime change is the most reliable, perhaps the only, guarantee for Iran's denuclearization – and the relevance of the goal to denuclearizing Iran – must be evaluated. The possibility of pursuing regime change as a solution to nuclear proliferation in Iran requires an answer to questions such as these: What precise process of change does one envision? What is the best estimate of the time scale for such an effort? If it is longer than the time by which Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it may not be relevant to the solution of the issue. In short, is the time frame for regime change compatible with the imperatives of bringing about the denuclearization of Iran?

The answers to these questions should not be left to impressionistic accounts but to formal and systematic analysis organized as a presentation of opposing views so that top policy-makers are able to judge the full dialectic of available evidence.

If the administration continues to pursue its declared policy of encouraging the European initiative, it will be driven to recognize that that process cannot go beyond a certain point without some kind of American participation. Progress will require a commitment by the European allies to a range of pressures if negotiations fail and to the elaboration of criteria linked to a schedule by which progress can be measured. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has rightly pointed out aspects of Iranian policy that impede negotiations with the United States, especially the support of groups relying on terror like Hamas and Hezbollah and actions in Iraq designed to prevent the consolidation of a political structure. Tehran will have to show some readiness to modify these dangerous ventures before America can participate meaningfully in the negotiating process now conducted by three European nations.

Such an opening need not – indeed, it should not at this stage – take the form of a bilateral Washington-Tehran dialogue. A framework similar to the Beijing six-party forum for dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem would serve to make clear to Tehran, London, Paris and Berlin the range of options the United States can support or must insist on and to strive for a coordinated policy on that basis.

The American objective of the desirability of regime change in Iran is not affected by such a tactical decision; it must, in any event, be pursued in the first instance for Iranian purposes. During the Cold War, it was the settled policy of several administrations to use negotiations to explore the prospects for diplomatic progress but at the same time to lay down markers to explain the stage at which confrontation became inevitable and the reason for it – all this while supporting dissidents and the forces of reform. Almost simultaneously with calling the Soviet Union the evil empire, President Reagan wrote a letter to its president, Leonid Brezhnev, inviting him to a dialogue.

In the case of Iran, the chances for progress of the European diplomacy are slight. But they need to be explored. Such a course will also leave us in the best position to draw the consequences from failure of negotiations. In the end, we cannot grant a veto to other nations on matters affecting national security. But we can ensure that it is a last resort.

It is possible – even likely – that Iran views its negotiations with the European countries as a way to gain time, perhaps through the second Bush administration. Iran may well maneuver for a position from which there is only a short final step to a nuclear weapons program, in the meantime encouraging as many incentives of long-term usefulness to the Iranian economy and nuclear program as it can induce the Western negotiators to offer. The Western purpose should be to use the process to achieve the effective and verifiable denuclearization of Iran but, failing that, to mobilize a full range of pressures. Our European allies should understand that America's skeptical position is perhaps the principal incentive for what little flexibility Iran has shown on the nuclear issue to date. But skepticism should be tested by events, not by a priori assumptions. A nonproliferation policy must therefore achieve clarity on the following issues: How much time is available before Iran has a nuclear weapons capability, and what strategy can best stop an Iranian nuclear weapons program? How do we prevent the diplomatic process from turning into a means to legitimize proliferation rather than avert it? We must never forget that failure will usher in a new set of nuclear perils dwarfing those which we have just surmounted.

Kissinger is a former secretary of state and adviser to several presidents.