Thursday, June 29, 2006

West Should Play Iran at its Game

Philip Stephens, The Financial Times:
A paymaster to violent Islamists, a would-be nuclear power and an implacable enemy of Israel: Iran presents a profound threat to the Middle East and to global security. Before too long, an Iran back in the international community and closer to democracy than any of its neighbours could emerge as a pivotal, pro-western force for stability in the region.

Both pictures can be convincingly drawn. Scratch below the surface of the anxiety about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and most western governments hold to the two propositions simultaneously. The tension between them explains the hesitations and frustrations in their relationship with Tehran.

How to deal robustly with the present Iranian leadership without strengthening the domestic authority of the fundamentalists; how to reassure pro-democracy reformers of the west’s good intentions, even as it threatens Iran with isolation and pariah status? READ MORE

You do not have to sit in the White House to worry about Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president. Today’s Iran is a proud sponsor of Hizbollah and of other Islamist groups committed to violent upheaval in the region. It has backed Shia militias in the sectarian violence in Iraq. Its links with Hamas point to a strategy to assume the leadership of radical Islam across the Middle East.

Statements by Mr Ahmadi-Nejad demanding that Israel be swept into the sea echo those long made by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Whatever the leadership says about the peaceful intentions of its nuclear research, the International Atomic Energy Authority has documented an extensive history of deceit.

Now peer, albeit hopefully, into the future. Everything about the social, political and cultural complexion of Iran points to its potential to emerge as a moderate, perhaps even pro-western, Muslim state. The parallel with Turkey is often drawn.

According to United Nations estimates, nearly a third of Iran’s population is under the age of 15. About half are 20 or younger. This overwhelmingly young demographic profile is leaving the ayatollahs behind. For Iran’s youth, the fall of the Shah and the confrontation with the “Great Satan” are fading pages from history. Culturally, at least, the young are instinctively pro-American.

There are other obvious markers of modernity: high standards of education, a democratically-minded middle class that has remained tuned in to the world beyond; and, for all the restrictions imposed by the ayatollahs, a level of emancipation among women scarcely known in neighbouring Muslim nations. Where else do the basic conditions for democracy look so propitious?

The snag is that there are two different time cycles at work. The best guess of international nuclear experts is that Iran’s scientists are four or five years from building a nuclear weapon. They are closer than that to mastering most of the intricate technology. Yet even those resolutely optimistic about a pluralist political future for Iran believe that it could well be another 10 years before pro-democracy reformists triumph.

The international community is left to nagivate the dangers of the present without sacrificing the opportunities of the future – to offer Mr Ahmadi-Nejad a mix of incentives and penalties sufficient to persuade him to impose a moratorium on Iran’s nuclear programme without strengthening his hand against those who would like to see Iran re-integrated into the international community.

The decision by the US to offer direct negotiations with Iran – and to put its name to the package of incentives offered by Britain, Germany and France, the so-called EU3 – was an important step in this direction. In its own terms, the bargain now on offer looks a reasonable one. Iran would be assured of its unalienable right to peaceful nuclear technology and would be guaranteed access to fuel for its reactors and to European know-how.

Beyond that, the promise is admission to the international economic system through membership of the World Trade Organisation, talks on regional security arrangements and an easing in US sanctions. All this represents a significant shift by the administration of President George W. Bush. In return, Iran is asked to declare a moratorium on uranium enrichment and any other routes to nuclear weapons.

There are few signs for optimism. Some of the rhetoric from Tehran has been half positive. But Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief negotiator, has thus far seemed more intent on delay than engagement. The regime wants more time to perfect the centrifuge technology that has seen it begin to enrich small quantities of uranium.

It also knows how to exploit the differences within the UN Security Council. Russia has made no secret of its opposition to sanctions if Iran rejects the latest offer. China has slipped in behind Russia in stalling agreement on a UN resolution that would allow sanctions. Moscow and Beijing share the strategic objectives of halting Iran’s nuclear programme but, for a mixture of commercial and political reasons, recoil from a confrontation with Tehran.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin may shift a little to prevent the divisions from overshadowing the July summit of the Group of Eight nations in St Petersburg. But as long as Moscow equivocates, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad will grab the chance to divide and rule. The temptation for Washington will be to force the issue, perhaps in favour of sanctions applied by a coalition of willing allies.

That would be a mistake. If the Iranian regime is playing a delaying game, the west should not abandon the waiting game. The nuclear threat is real but not yet imminent. Now that it has broken with its previous refusal to talk to Tehran, the US should set out more explicitly the opportunities open to a non-nuclear Iran. These should include a firm security guarantee. Mr Ahmadi-Nejad must be seen by his fellow Iranians to be dragging Iran into isolation rather than being pushed there by the US.

Ultimately, there may be little that the international community can do. The regime’s determination to acquire a nuclear weapons capability may be such that it will resist blandishments and sanctions alike. In that case the only option will be a return to the hard-headed policies of containment and deterrence deployed against the Soviet Union during the cold war. But we are not there yet. To ostracise Iran now may be to further radicalise it. In dealing with today’s threat, the west must keep an eye on tomorrow’s opportunity.