Since talks between Iran and three leading European states fell apart last August, the impasse over Iran's nuclear program has steadily worsened. Each time Washington and its European partners ratchet up international pressure on Iran to slow its nuclear efforts and provide greater transparency, Tehran has pushed back and accelerated work on its uranium-enrichment program, which could eventually be used to produce bomb-grade material.
Consequently, the main antagonists are moving further away from the diplomatic solution both say they want. As a result, we may eventually see a military confrontation, a nuclear weapons-capable Iran, or both. If such perilous outcomes are to be averted, Washington and Tehran need to engage in direct talks aimed at a grand bargain that addresses each of their concerns.
Last month, in defiance of a UN Security Council statement calling for an immediate suspension of all enrichment activities, Iran announced that it had produced a small quantity of reactor-grade uranium using a test assembly of centrifuges and said it plans to expand the facility's production capacity for "peaceful" purposes.
In response, the United States is calling for "strong steps" to force Tehran to abandon its uranium-enrichment program. U.S. officials say they want a Security Council resolution that would cite Chapter VII of the UN charter, which would designate Iran's nuclear program as a threat to international security.
Bush administration officials say they favor a diplomatic solution even as they seek to build support for multilateral sanctions and refuse to rule out the possibility of pre-emptive strikes on Iran's underground nuclear complex. Iran's leaders also say they are ready to hold further talks with the Europeans and Russians but have so far been unwilling to accept European offers of economic incentives and assurances of nuclear fuel supplies. If pressured further, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has hinted that Iran might withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Virtually all other states are alarmed by Iran's violation of its International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and refusal to exercise restraint. But Security Council members, including veto-wielding China and Russia, are understandably wary of a Chapter VII resolution because it would create a trip wire for sanctions or military strikes against Iran's underground facilities. This is the same formula pursued by the same U.S. administration in preparation for its imprudent 2003 invasion of Iraq. As a consequence, the council is divided on what to do next.
Avoiding a nuclear weapons-capable Iran is a vital objective for many reasons. If Iran develops a full-blown enrichment capacity, let alone nuclear weapons, several other key states, including Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, might feel compelled to follow suit. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability may also embolden radical groups supported by Tehran.
However, Iran has not mastered uranium-enrichment technology and will not likely be able to amass enough fissile material for bombs for several years. There is sufficient time to adopt and pursue a new diplomatic approach that can break the current cycle of crisis escalation.
Avoiding the worst requires that the United States and Iran engage in direct talks on the nuclear question and take the other's security concerns seriously. Iran's leaders need to accept that the only way to establish confidence that their once-secret nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes is to suspend enrichment work for a substantial period and cooperate fully with international inspectors.
U.S. allies must also press the Bush administration to rule out pre-emptive military action as long as Iran does not openly pursue nuclear weapons development or support attacks of any kind on the United States or our allies in the region. Pre-emptive attacks could spark a wider war and incite Iranian-supported terrorism against U.S. interests. Such strikes would only delay Iran's nuclear program and tilt Iranian opinion in favor of building nuclear weapons.
Given the stakes, Western states, along with Russia, must fortify their previous offers of economic trade and integration, as well as legally binding nuclear fuel supply guarantees and a joint nuclear fuel production partnership in Russia. Russia and other states must also hold off further assistance for Iran's nearly completed Bushehr reactor project and Iran's military forces.
As President George H. W. Bush did 15 years ago, leading states should also convene talks on a framework for arms control and stability that aims to curb the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the Middle East. The effort should be designed to establish a regional, verifiable ban on the production and acquisition of weapons-usable nuclear material and the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone, including both Israel and Iran.
The current Bush-Cheney vision may be too limited to see the value of these steps. But the administration's strategy of incremental coercive diplomacy is not working and may in fact be an exercise designed to fail. Either way, the stakes are too high not to pursue a new and more effective diplomatic strategy.