Time to Start Talking to Tehran

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, must sometimes strike Washington as the gift that keeps on giving. His odious statements on the Holocaust and Israel, his nuclear defiance and his disastrous domestic policies have produced outrage at home and around the world. Yet even his best efforts haven’t been enough to help the Bush administration build an international consensus around its floundering diplomatic approach.

The stalemate in talks and Washington’s escalating allegations of Iranian malfeasance in Iraq have fueled speculation that the United States might strike Iran before George W. Bush leaves office. No matter what the administration does for its final act, however, it’s still likely to bequeath the problem to its successor. Barring the unexpected, the next U.S. president will confront an array of threats similar to today’s. Fortunately, he or she will have plenty of options that Bush has discarded, overlooked or just plain ignored.

Iran will, to be sure, remain a knotty problem. Tehran’s quest for weapons of mass destruction, its support for terrorism, its antagonism toward Israel and the peace process and its repression of domestic rights and freedoms have been consistent elements of the clerical regime’s policy for most of its 28-year history. Bush’s successor will face an Iran whose strategic position has been immeasurably strengthened by the elimination of powerful adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the fact that the U.S. military remains bogged down in both places. The next American president will face an Iranian regime that is flush with oil money, essentially impervious to financial pressures and indifferent to U.S. threats. Perhaps most dangerous, he or she will have to grapple with a greatly accelerated Iranian nuclear program.

That said, the next president will inherit one big advantage. Simply not being George W. Bush—who even Iran’s relatively pragmatic former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has dismissed as a “dinosaur with a sparrow’s brain”—will enormously improve the next president’s prospects for dialogue.

The challenge will be how to take advantage of this opening. Washington must figure out how to regulate Iran’s power and diminish its unsavory practices. Although the model of Chinese-American rapprochement is often invoked, a more suitable example is the d?tente pursued between the United States and the U.S.S.R. during the 1970s, when the two powers came together not because of any mutual fears (as was the case with the U.S.-Chinese opening) but out of a desire to stabilize their increasingly dangerous competition. Of course, Iran today is not the Soviet Union of that era. But Henry Kissinger’s approach—creating mutually reinforcing commercial and diplomatic incentives to persuade adversaries to avoid conflict and conform to international norms—is just as relevant now as it was then.

In the case of Iran, applying this means beginning a comprehensive dialogue that puts all the major issues on the table. Solutions will involve a series of trade-offs. If it wants to maintain some kind of civilian nuclear-power program, Iran should be told that it must agree to an unprecedented, intrusive verification scheme involving permanent inspectors and 24-hour monitoring of its facilities. In exchange for U.S. recognition of Iran’s role in Iraq, Tehran should be expected to rein in the recalcitrant Shiite militias there and help set up a government that includes all of Iraq’s factions. In exchange for Washington’s acceptance of the legitimacy of Iran’s clerical regime and the resumption of economic ties, Iran will have to stop meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Islamic Republic does not have to recognize Israel or dissolve Hizbullah. But it should abandon its public attacks on the Jewish state and press its Lebanese prot?g? to become a regular political party.

If none of the above works, of course, the next administration must be ready with a plan B. Today, the only fail-safe option Bush seems to favor is a military strike on Iran’s atomic facilities. But this wouldn’t offer a permanent solution to the Iranian nuclear problem or help stabilize Iraq or the Gulf (in fact, it would do just the opposite). A new backup plan is therefore needed, one that would help contain an empowered Iran and negate the impact of its nuclear weapons. Fortunately, crafting one will become easier as the danger from Iran intensifies. Should Tehran cross successive nuclear thresholds in defiance of its international obligations and the United Nations’ mandates, its neighbors are likely to become more willing to participate in a robust containment policy. Europe and Japan, meanwhile—and even Russia and China—may finally agree to impose real sanctions.

If talks fail, the United States should also issue a set of public warnings—much clearer and less blustery than those offered by the Bush administration. The Islamic Republic will have to be told that any first use of its bombs would constitute a direct threat against the United States. In a similar vein, any transfer of Iran’s nuclear material would be viewed as a danger to the United States itself—and Washington would respond accordingly. The next president should also quietly offer Iran’s neighbors informal security guarantees to ease their nerves and make them less inclined to acquiesce to Iranian blackmail. Such a concerted strategy would help Washington deny Iran any diplomatic leverage while building a formidable wall around it.

Even then, diplomacy will remain crucial. Should Iran at any point signal that it’s ready to come in from the cold and dismantle its nukes, the United States should be prepared to engage it. None of this will be easy. But improving on the Bush administration’s woefully ineffective approach won’t prove that difficult, either.