Engaging Iran

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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President Bush was right to demand this week that Iran allow clear-cut, third-party verification of its claims that it has suspended its enrichment of weapons-grade uranium before the rest of the world begins to breathe easy. There’s been a lot of slippery talk and outright falsehood about nuclear weaponry in the Middle East of late, and nobody’s credibility is particularly good. The record of deception casts a long shadow over present efforts to claim the high ground. In an issue this fraught with danger, independent verification is essential.

That record of deception might be a good part of the reason that the president is letting the British, French and Germans take the lead in the confrontation with Iran, rather than pushing ahead with a unilateral American show of muscle, as hard-liners in Washington and Jerusalem would like. The Europeans say they can get Iran to back away from its nuclear program through a combination of trade and diplomatic inducements, backed up by aggressive verification, with the implied threat of American force as a fallback. The hawks in Washington insist that Iran can’t be trusted, that it’s lying about its intentions and hiding much of its weapons facilities. They say that international inspections are useless as a way of disarming a rogue state like Iran.

The trouble with the hawks’ position is that they said all those same things about Iraq, and every bit of it turned out to be wrong. It’s largely thanks to their bad advice, and the calamitous misadventure into which it launched us, that America and the world now face such a narrow range of options vis-à-vis Iran. America no longer has the moral authority needed to rally the world community behind it in a broad coalition of conscience that might isolate the mullahs. Even if we had it, our military is bogged down and stretched beyond its limit in Iraq and Afghanistan, making the notion of a new theater of operations an empty threat. Of our potential allies, Britain has so inflamed its own public opinion by joining us in Iraq that any new front would threaten the government’s survival. As for France, that limp-wristed pacifist of America’s imagination, it has troops leading peacekeeping operations in a half-dozen trouble spots around the world that Americans can’t find on a map, from Congo to Ivory Coast to the Chad side of the Sudanese border.

Worst of all, our misadventure in Iraq has, by removing Saddam Hussein, eliminated Iran’s main military rival, giving the mullahs the regional superpower status that they had long sought but could not achieve on their own. Their regime is essentially stable, for all the delusions of the Washington superhawks; an attempt to conquer and refashion Iran would make Iraq look like a picnic.

Make no mistake: Entering a negotiation that treats Iran as an equal partner able to write the terms of its own disarmament represents a failure of American and Western policy. The Islamic republic is a rogue player on the world stage, an enthusiastic advocate of terrorism and the mass murder of civilians as weapons of policy. It is deeply committed, with a fervor matched by no other Muslim state, to the elimination of the State of Israel by violent means. Its designs to spread jihad in other non-Muslim nations are only slightly less alarming.

Much has been lost in the past three years because of the ineptness of American diplomacy in handling the challenges. A host of new opportunities are now opening up for a fresh start. For one, the death of Yasser Arafat creates the possibility of a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which could defuse the region’s worst irritant, allow us to rebuild alliances with Arab moderates and isolate the extremists. For another, Europe’s growing awareness of the jihadist threat it faces at home appears to be stiffening its resolve, as Rachel Levy reports from Amsterdam on Page 1. For another, the end of the American election campaign ends any illusion among allies or foes that they can get a better deal if they wait a bit.

The president should seize these new openings and match them with a new spirit of openness and pragmatism. His response to the Iran negotiations is a good start.

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