Time to Rethink U.S. Strategy on Iran

By Daryl G. Kimball

Since Iran’s leaders two years ago rejected a multilateral package of incentives to halt their uranium-enrichment program, the United States and Europe have adopted a strategy of targeted sanctions. But this effort has failed to slow progress on Iran’s most worrisome nuclear projects.

Rather than engage Iran in a broad-based dialogue, the Bush administration has said it will only negotiate if Iran complies with UN Security Council calls to suspend its nuclear program. At the same time, the president and vice president have suggested that they may be willing to use military force to prevent Iran from “acquiring the knowledge to make nuclear weapons.”

That is a recipe for failure. Although divided on tactics, Iran’s leaders are now more determined than ever to pursue uranium enrichment and build heavy-water reactors. Tehran claims that these facilities are solely for energy and medical isotope production, but they can also create bomb-grade fissile material. Iran’s leaders should recognize their defiance undermines their prestige and the possibility of a rapprochement with other countries.

A more effective approach is needed and soon. As the United States and other key Security Council members seek to impose still tougher sanctions targeted at Iran’s leaders, its military and energy interests, and foreign investment, they must also engage in a comprehensive and sustained direct dialogue with Iran’s leaders.

Even though European-led efforts faltered in 2005, a new and fortified U.S.-backed package that increases the benefits of restraint and creates the possibility of removing tough international sanctions could still succeed in limiting the scope of Iran’s enrichment capabilities. U.S. and European leaders could open the talks by offering to halt further sanctions so long as Iran halts its sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle work and expands cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Moscow’s earlier offer to provide nuclear fuel services and joint research opportunities at facilities in Russia should be put back into play. U.S. officials and presidential wannabes should bite their tongues about military strikes, which would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, cause a wider war in the Middle East, and tilt Iranian opinion in favor of building nuclear weapons.

Instead, U.S. diplomats should dangle the possibility of guarantees against pre-emptive attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities or leadership targets, so long as Iran refrains from full-scale enrichment, allows greater IAEA access, and fully answers outstanding questions about its once-secret nuclear experiments.

Key nonaligned states, including India and South Africa, also have a responsibility to help restrain Iran’s program, rather than reinforce the false notion that nuclear technology enhances prestige and that Iran has the “right” to pursue enrichment capabilities. Under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), non-nuclear-weapon states may make “use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” but only if they abide by their NPT safeguards commitments, which Iran has not done.

Such a strategy offers no guarantee of success, yet it appears to be the only approach that might avert a U.S.-Iranian military conflict, a nuclear-armed Iran, or both. U.S. and European diplomats may win support from the UN Security Council for tougher sanctions, but Iran’s nuclear program is moving faster than the effort to halt it. One year ago, Iran had 300 gas centrifuge machines in place; today it has nearly 3,000.

As Iran deploys more uranium-enrichment centrifuges, its leverage increases and the value of a “suspension” is diminished. If Iran moves from research to a production-level enrichment capacity or further to nuclear weapons, several other Middle Eastern states might feel compelled to follow suit.

Still, there is time to test whether a negotiated resolution to the crisis is possible, but only if a more serious initiative is pursued. Iran’s enrichment capability is still limited. The IAEA estimates that Iran might have enough material to produce a bomb in three to eight years if it decides to do so.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration spurned earlier diplomatic openings out of fear that direct talks would bestow legitimacy on Iran and achieve nothing. As President George W. Bush put it on Oct. 4, “Negotiations just for the sake of negotiations often times send wrong signals. Negotiations to achieve consequences are worth doing.”

Certainly. But as Bush himself has pointed out, the administration engaged in six-party talks with North Korea, even as Pyongyang operated a reactor and a facility to reprocess plutonium for weapons. The strategy yielded an imperfect yet vital deal that has verifiably shut down North Korea’s major facilities and could lead to the dismantlement of its nuclear program.

If a certain policy fails to produce favorable results, most politicians and diplomats have the good sense to make adjustments rather than advocate more of the same. Leaders in Washington, Tehran, and elsewhere must rethink their current strategy and have the courage to take the first step toward a solution.