It may have been the biggest disaster for European diplomacy since the Balkan wars in the early 1990s. After years of delicate negotiations with Iran to convince the mullahs to abandon their quest for nuclear weapons, last week the “EU3” group of Germany, Britain and France made a final offer to Tehran — give up the right to enrich uranium and in return receive all the technical and economic incentives the Islamic Republic could ever want — that seemed too good to refuse. That, however, is just what newly installed Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did, calling the proposal “worthless.”
Now the Europeans are frustrated and angry, while the neoconservatives in Washington and elsewhere feel vindicated. The latter never believed Europeans’ assurances that Iran would respond to the right choice of carrots, and were only waiting to brandish at Tehran their sticks: economic and political sanctions, coupled with a credible threat of military action, be it targeted bombings of Iranian nuclear installations or a full-fledged invasion aimed at regime change.
But do any of these scenarios truly promise a better result than the failed European effort? Was the E.U. initiative misguided from the start, or did it fall victim to the usual tensions between Europe and the United States and the fickleness of domestic policy in Iran — where the electoral victory of the hardline Ahmadinejad signaled a turn toward more nationalistic policies?
To answer these questions, it is important to first understand the nature of the current regime in Tehran. There is widespread agreement in the West that the Iranian rulers are determined to acquire nuclear weapons, and there is an equal consensus that such an outcome would further destabilize the Middle East and weaken the global fight against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
But there is wide disagreement on how best to stop the mullahs from achieving their goal — not only between the United States and the E.U., but also within European and American decision-making circles. Few in the West truly understand the dynamic of Iranian politics.
Among American conservatives, there are those who believe that overthrowing the theocratic rulers is the only way to banish the mortal threat from Tehran. Since the domestic reform movement failed over the past decade, their logic goes, the agents of change must come from abroad.
Others argue that the Iranians are totalitarian aggressors with a radical, but rational, mindset who despise weakness but respect strength. Before they suffer the fate of Saddam Hussein, in this view, the mullahs will relent, so any diplomacy that weakens the credibility of the American military threat is counterproductive.
Yet another faction claims that the Iranians are interested enough in trade relations and international prestige that they would be willing to shelve their nuclear plans in order to avoid United Nations sanctions. This group sees the current path of hard-nosed diplomacy as the most promising way out of the Iranian quagmire.
But even if one accepts the view of Iran’s rulers as a dangerous, nasty regime bent on expansion and destruction, none of these “robust” options seems very promising. A full-fledged invasion of Iran would be much harder to pull off than the Iraq war — which, not so incidentally, continues to vastly overstretch the American military. Pinpoint attacks like the Israeli bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 would work only if the Iranian facilities were concentrated and above ground — neither of which is the case, because Iran learned the lessons from Osirak.
What are left, then, are economic and political sanctions. Only a few months ago, that might have been a credible threat had China and Russia been persuaded to forgo their veto rights in the U.N. Security Council.
But the new Iranian president made the renunciation of riches for moral purification a pillar of his electoral campaign. Given the current nationalist frenzy, can it credibly be argued that the Iranians would be willing to give up the sovereign right to enrich uranium just so they could earn some economic benefits? This approach might have worked if Ahmadinejad’s more pragmatic rival, Hashemi Rafsanjani, had won, but under the rule of the former Tehran mayor and Revolutionary Guard member, the power of economic weapons seems quite limited — both as a carrot and as a stick.
In short, the hard-nosed diplomacy touted by Washington seems as likely to fail as the soft-nosed approach practiced by the Europeans in recent years. Another look at the rejected European proposal, then, would seem to be in order. Was it really as good as claimed by Germany’s charismatic foreign minister, Joschka Fischer?
The core problem of the current standoff with Tehran is a legal dilemma: Iran is a signatory member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which permits enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes. The treaty may be flawed, but it is nonetheless international law.
The West wants Iran to give up a right that other countries enjoy, something that would be hard for any proud nation to swallow — even one without any aggressive intentions. But the nonproliferation treaty is based on trust, and since Iran has cheated extensively in recent years and admitted misleading the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is no basis for trusting the regime in Tehran.
That explains why even IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei — who is not particularly known for excessive toughness and was recently re-elected to his post primarily because the United States could not come up with a viable alternative candidate — wants Iran to end its enrichment program under all circumstances. But how do you tell your counterparts that they are not trustworthy without insulting them?
The answer may lie in the issue of security. Despite the hardliners’ recent victory, Iran’s ruling mullahs are not cut from the same cloth as the Ayatollah Khomeini-led regime that tried to spread Islamic ideals across the region after taking power in 1979. The current leaders are post-revolutionaries, fearful of change and uncertain about their survival.
Today, what Iran’s leaders crave most is security, and their quest for nuclear weapons is more an expression of anxiety than of aggressive intentions. The Iranians are surrounded by nuclear powers: Russia, Pakistan, Israel and the United States, with its aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. So it is at least understandable that Iran does not want to forgo the option of becoming a nuclear power itself.
Do the mullahs have real reasons to be afraid? They only have to listen to the speeches in Washington to know that the world’s only superpower cannot wait to see them end up in the dustbin of history.
This points to the core weakness of the European initiative: It was strong on economic and technical goodies, but vague on security. This is no surprise, because Europe cannot offer Iran the security it craves. Only the United States can do that. The E.U. initiative enjoyed the blessing of the Bush administration, but this was not enough to convince the Iranians that an agreement would have ended the American military threat — and for good reason, because it would not have fit the White House’s doctrine of democratizing the Middle East.
Europe was the wrong agent for negotiations with Tehran from the start. The Iranians knew that, and never took the European seriously enough. This is discouraging for those who want the E.U. to play a larger international role, but it at least points to a possible solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. If the United States comes around and offers Iran a non-aggression treaty or some other ironclad security guarantee, the response from Tehran might be different.
Such a scenario requires plenty of good will and good behavior from both sides, including a constructive Iranian role in both Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that requires pragmatism and a diminishing ideological fervor on the Iranian side, the opposite of what Ahmadinejad seems to offer. And as for the Bush administration, a genuine friendly gesture toward Iran is about as likely as a pro-choice nominee for the Supreme Court.
So the best the world can hope for is continued muddling through — a mixture of tough and accommodating diplomacy, sanctions and concessions. Building a nuclear device is not an easy thing to do, and there is no guarantee that the Iranians will succeed. Perhaps the hardliners in Tehran will soften as public discontent increases over the economic troubles in the country, and will grow more open to European advances. And perhaps the United States will realize that if it has no realistic chance of destroying the devil by force, softness actually can become a form of strength.
One day, the European initiative to end Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons may very well succeed — but only if the messenger is American.