Friday, April 14, 2006

Nuclear Hostage Crisis

Michael Rubin, The Wall Street Journal:
On April 11, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced, "Iran has joined the club of nuclear countries." State television broadcast the audience chanting "God is great." The presence of senior military commanders underlined the nature of the program, which the regime vowed to continue. Mohammad Saeedi, deputy chairman of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told state-run television that the Islamic Republic would begin uranium enrichment on an industrial scale but Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi suggested a new status quo. "The West can do nothing and is obliged to extend to us the hand of friendship," he said.

Some diplomats are inclined to take the bait. Kofi Annan urged "everyone to work more actively in search of a diplomatic solution." Earlier this month, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged the U.S. to engage Iran directly. On April 11, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass said that if he were still the State Department's policy planning director, a position he held between 2001 and 2003, he "would put together a diplomatic package." International Atomic Energy Agency director-general Mohamed ElBaradei continues to push the idea. The idea of a Grand Bargain -- diplomatic recognition, security guarantees, and economic incentives in exchange for Iranian forfeiture of its nuclear autonomy -- has had long resonance in the foreign policy debate, even though a similar strategy failed to halt North Korea's program.

Proposals for direct negotiations may be attractive, but they ignore Iranian history. Implicit in any deal is recognition of a system of government which, according to recent surveys, enjoys at most 20% popular support. The Islamic Republic's greatest fear is demography; 70% of Iranians came of age after the Islamic Revolution. They are proud and nationalistic, yet outward looking. They represent Iran's future and have no love for their leadership. The White House should not squander their goodwill. In 1953 and 1979, Washington supported an unpopular regime against the will of the Iranian people; any deal which would preserve the regime would be to make the same mistake again. READ MORE

When it comes to the Islamic Republic, diplomatic outreach aggravates rather than ameliorates tension.

Some realists argue that Washington should appeal to Iranian pragmatists. A 2004 Council on Foreign Relations task force labeled Expediency Council chairman and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani one such pragmatist, but he is the father of the Islamic Republic's covert nuclear program; his pragmatism extends only to questions of personal -- not uranium -- enrichment.

Factionalism matters. But history suggests that rather than provide space for diplomacy, Iran's factional struggles aggravate it. However well-meaning, Western outreach empowers hard-liners and undercuts U.S. interests.

On April 1, 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini declared the Islamic Republic, mutual antipathy was not assured. On Nov. 1, 1979, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Iran's Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan met in Algiers to discuss resumption of relations. In order to scuttle rapprochement and embarrass moderates, hard-line students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Khomeini used the subsequent crisis to consolidate hard-liner control.

Seven years later, a misguided U.S. attempt to engage Iran sparked the worst Washington scandal since Watergate. In March 1986, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane traveled secretly to Tehran to spearhead rapprochement as part of a scheme to divert proceeds from arms sales to the Nicaraguan resistance. Within days, pamphlets appeared on Tehran University bulletin boards condemning "the visit of an American official." On Nov. 3, 1986, Ash Shiraa, a pro-Syrian Lebanese magazine, detailed the secret contacts. While the scandal paralyzed Ronald Reagan's second term, the leaks originated not in Washington but in Tehran. The betrayal of Reagan's confidence had nothing to do with the U.S., but rather with an internal Iranian power struggle.

The Clinton administration took its own misstep toward reconciliation when, on Sept. 15, 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arranged to meet alone with her Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of a U.N. Afghanistan conference. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi stood her up. Slights also matter. What Washington shrugged off as a minor embarrassment projected U.S. weakness to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's inner circle.

Nor has engagement only backfired with Washington. Berlin spearheaded engagement with Tehran in 1992, but suspended it five years later after a German court found top Iranian officials, including Messrs. Khamenei and Rafsanjani, complicit in ordering the murder of dissidents in Berlin. But Brussels renewed engagement with vigor two years later after Iranian President Muhammad Khatami called for a "Dialogue of Civilizations." Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran almost tripled. The regime invested the hard currency not in civil society but in its weapons program. Speaking softly while wielding a big carrot backfires.

It is comforting but dangerous and naive to believe a magic formula of incentives and guarantees can defuse the Iranian nuclear crisis. The cost of diplomacy alone is high. The Islamic Republic did not construct its centrifuge cascade overnight. Mr. Ahmadinejad may want glory, but the credit for Iran's nuclear enrichment lies with his reformist and pragmatist predecessors. That Iran is now enriching uranium is a testament to years of diplomatic insincerity.

There is little to negotiate. Either Iran agrees to open its sites -- both declared and undeclared -- to unfettered inspection, or it does not. Either Tehran details its dealings with Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, or it does not. While the National Intelligence Estimate says Iran is five to 10 years away from building a bomb, this assumption rests on an entirely domestic program. If Iran purchases weapons-grade material from outside suppliers, all bets are off. North Korea, partner in Washington's last Grand Bargain, would be happy to sell.

The cost of any military strike on Iran would be high, although not as high as the cost of the Islamic Republic gaining nuclear weapons. The Bush administration is paying the price for more than five years without a cogent, coordinated Iran policy. Each passing day limits policy options. Engaging the regime will preserve the problem, not eliminate it.

Only when the regime is accountable to the Iranian people can there be a peaceful solution
. To do this requires targeted sanctions -- freezing assets and travel bans -- on regimes officials, coupled with augmented and expedited investment in independent rather than government-licensed civil society, labor unions and media. It may be too late, but it would be irresponsible not to try.

Mr. Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is co-author, with Patrick Clawson, of "Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos" (Palgrave, 2005).