Los Angeles Times

Give Iran an Alternative to Nukes

On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors is expected to announce that Iran—long identified by the U.S. government as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism—has failed to live up to its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT.

Based on recent IAEA inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities, experts say Iran may be within two years of having the capability to build nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has no strategy in place for dealing with this threat.

Instead, the administration continues to allow the Defense Department's antipathy to serious dialogue with Iran to paralyze policymaking on this critical issue. All the administration seems prepared to do is exhort its allies to refrain from signing new nuclear or other business deals with Tehran—a policy that has not kept Iran from developing its nuclear infrastructure.

At Monday's meeting, the administration may push to have Iran's failure to meet its NPT commitments declared a treaty violation. That is likely to require further inspection and deliberation, taking up critical time that should be used to keep Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.

The administration hopes that it can use the IAEA report to persuade Russia to end its involvement in the Bushehr nuclear reactor project in Iran. But President Vladimir V. Putin has proved unable or unwilling for years to pull the plug on Russia's $800-million contract for the Bushehr project, and even if Moscow acts, the most recent information about Iran's nuclear program makes it clear that plutonium from Bushehr's reactors is not Iran's only source of fissile material.

Dealing effectively with the threat will require more from the United States. We will have to address Tehran's motives for seeking nuclear weapons in the first place. As a senior Iranian strategist put it to me, Iran lives in a tough neighborhood. It's a Shiite state surrounded by Sunni states that hate it and have persecuted Shiite Muslims in the past. One of those states, Pakistan, already has nuclear weapons. And Iran must also take into account Israel's nuclear capability and the robust U.S. military presence nearby.

Like it or not, Iran has legitimate security interests. Until the administration recognizes this and figures out a way to accommodate those interests in a manner consistent with our policy goals and values, it will not be able to stop Iran's quest for nuclear capability.

Striking this balance would require the administration to engage Iran in an unconditional, broad-based dialogue. Such a dialogue would have to address the Islamic Republic's domestic repression and its support for terrorist organizations, in addition to its pursuit of nuclear weapons. There would need to be an "or else" to our overture; if Iran were not willing to address our concerns, including the verifiable abandonment of its nuclear ambitions, we should be prepared to impose severe, even forceful, consequences. These could include covert or overt military strikes against key strategic facilities in Iran and efforts to increase pressure on its already beleaguered economy.

But we also should be prepared to make clear the alternative for an Iran that deals constructively with our concerns: a normalized diplomatic relationship without the burden of economic sanctions, with Tehran's legitimate security interests respected and with the promise of U.S. support for integrating Iran more fully into the international community.

There is increasing evidence that hard-liners in Iran as well as reformers are interested in this kind of deal. Unfortunately, the hard-liners in the Bush administration are not.

Pentagon civilians and their allies in the administration see any diplomatic exchange with state sponsors of terrorism as a threat to the purity of the president's war on terror, even if the exchange is aimed at getting the state sponsor out of the business of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Their opposition thwarts serious consideration of hard-nosed engagement as a policy option.

But engagement is a more effective and realistic approach than other alternatives the administration might consider to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Military action along the lines of Israel's attack on the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981 probably would not work, for example. Iran presents multiple important nuclear targets, not just one, and some of them would be difficult to get to and destroy. Additionally, opposition groups claim there are more nuclear sites we know nothing about.

Some in the administration are known to favor fomenting regime change in Iran, but even if this could be made to happen before the nuclear program matured, there would be no guarantee that a successor government to the Islamic Republic would be more tractable on Iran's nuclear weapons program. After all, it was started under the shah.

We still have a chance to prevent Iran from going nuclear. It would be a true failure of policy if the Bush administration's internal wrangling kept us from taking it.