Iran: The Gulf Between Us

Flynt L. Leverett
Flynt L. Leverett Senior Fellow, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

January 24, 2006

As the United States and its European partners consider their next steps to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, let’s recall how poorly the Bush administration has handled this issue. During its five years in office, the administration has turned away from every opportunity to put relations with Iran on a more positive trajectory. Three examples stand out.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Tehran offered to help Washington overthrow the Taliban and establish a new political order in Afghanistan. But in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush announced that Iran was part of an “axis of evil,” thereby scuttling any possibility of leveraging tactical cooperation over Afghanistan into a strategic opening.

In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran’s power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A conversation I had shortly after leaving the government with a senior conservative Iranian official strongly suggested that this was the case. Unfortunately, the administration’s response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line.

Finally, in October 2003, the Europeans got Iran to agree to suspend enrichment in order to pursue talks that might lead to an economic, nuclear and strategic deal. But the Bush administration refused to join the European initiative, ensuring that the talks failed.

Now Washington and its allies are faced with two unattractive options for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. They can refer the issue to the Security Council, but, at a time of tight energy markets, no one is interested in restricting Iranian oil sales. Other measures under discussion—travel restrictions on Iranian officials, for example—are likely to be imposed only ad hoc, with Russia and China as probable holdouts. They are in any case unlikely to sway Iranian decision-making, because unlike his predecessor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad disdains being feted in European capitals.

Alternatively, the United States (or Israel) could strike militarily at Iran’s nuclear installations. But these are spread across Iran, and planners may not know all of the targets that would need to be hit. Moreover, a strike could prove counterproductive by hardening Iranian resolve to acquire a nuclear weapons capacity.

Is there a way out of this strategic dead end? Nuclear diplomacy with Iran, never an easy proposition, has been made harder not only by poor policy choices in Washington, but also by trends in Iranian politics. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory last year against former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani suggests that a significant number of Iranians linked Mr. Rafsanjani’s call for rapprochement with the West with his corrupt past and rejected both in favor of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s populist nationalism. Moreover, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s execrable rhetoric about Israel and the Holocaust threatens to make future Western engagement look like appeasement.

These developments have severely circumscribed the possibilities for diplomacy between the United States and Iran. Iranian officials with ties to the Ayatollah Khamenei continue to stress in private conversations that key players on Iran’s National Security Council—the chief decision-making body for foreign policy—remain interested in a strategic dialogue with Washington. But the popularly elected President Ahmadinejad could easily marshal resistance to any “grand bargain” with the United States. And absent a more positive strategic context, efforts to reopen discussions on a discrete issue of mutual interest, like Iraq, would at best only reprise the experience of short-lived tactical cooperation over Afghanistan.

Last week, the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, suggested a way out of this impasse—one that might also help address other pressing challenges in the Persian Gulf. The Saudi prince noted that if Iranian nuclear weapons were deployed against Israel, they would kill Palestinians, and if they missed Israel, they would hit Arab countries. And so he urged Iran “to accept the position that we have taken to make the Gulf, as part of the Middle East, nuclear free and free of weapons of mass destruction.”

While Prince Saud blamed Israel for starting a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, his implication that a nuclear-weapons-free Gulf might precede a regionwide nuclear-weapons-free zone is a nuanced departure from longstanding Arab insistence that regional arms control cannot begin without Israel’s denuclearization. The United States and its partners should build on this idea and support the creation of a Gulf Security Council that would include Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states in the Gulf, as well as the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The Gulf Security Council would not replace American alliances with traditional security partners, but it would operate alongside them, much as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has operated alongside NATO. The council would provide a framework under which the United States could guarantee that it would not use force to change Iran’s borders or form of government, provided that Iran committed itself to regionally defined and monitored norms for nonproliferation (including a nuclear weapons ban), counterterrorism and human rights. States concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities would then have new leverage to ensure Iranian compliance with these commitments. Additionally, pressing Iran to abide by standards defined and administered multilaterally might be more acceptable to China and Russia than pushing Iran to accept an American reinterpretation of its nonproliferation obligations.

Such a framework would leapfrog over proposals for establishing a “contact group” of Iraq’s neighbors and offer all parts of the Iranian political spectrum—even the hard-liners around Mr. Ahmadinejad—something they want: recognition of Iran’s leading regional role. Besides rejuvenating efforts to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, it could provide essential support for stabilization in Iraq, as the inclusion of Iran and Saudi Arabia would bring together the two states that could be most useful in brokering compromises between Shiite and Sunni communities there.

A diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem is still within reach. But successful diplomacy will require a bold new vision. The next time the five permanent members of the Security Council convene to discuss Iran, perhaps they should meet in Riyadh rather than London.