Op-Ed

America’s Refusal to Engage Iran a Dead End

Kenneth M. Pollack and Philip H. Gordon

When Iran finally agreed last month to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for European promises of technology, trade and dialogue, Washington’s reaction was a large and predictable pitcher of cold water.

The Bush administration opted not to block an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution welcoming the deal, but still deprecated the European approach and shrugged it off as unlikely to succeed. “People here are very unhappy about all this,” one official told The Washington Post, “but we have to go through the motions. We think Iran will break this deal soon enough, anyway.”

Skepticism about Iran’s nuclear intentions is well warranted. Iran has cheated on past agreements, and all signs point to the fact that the regime, backed by a vast majority of Iranian public opinion, wants nuclear weapons. The real question, however, is not whether Tehran can be trusted—it can’t—but whether our policies can help persuade Iran to forgo rather than build nuclear weapons. And Washington’s current policy of refusing to back the European approach—while offering no realistic alternatives to it—is leading nowhere quickly. Even worse, the refusal to join with the Europeans to engage Iran because such an approach will not succeed risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy: the approach to Iran might well fail, but in large part because of our own refusal to support it.

There are several reasons that the United States should end its policy of malevolent neglect of Iran and work with our European allies to craft a package of carrots and sticks that could persuade Tehran to agree to a verifiable end to its nuclear program.

First, while Europe’s pacifism and pursuit of commercial profit is often appropriately criticized, the Europeans are more realistic about Iran than is commonly recognized. Europeans do not assume that Iran does not want the bomb or that a nuclear Iran would not be a danger. On the contrary, it is because they are convinced both that Tehran wants nuclear weapons and that a nuclear Iran could destabilize the Middle East that they believe that great efforts are required to increase the costs to Iran of doing so and the benefits of not doing so. Just as other potential or actual nuclear-weapons states—including South Africa, Egypt, South Korea, Ukraine, Taiwan, Argentina and Brazil—have in the past been persuaded to forgo or give up the bomb, so could Iran—if presented with the right mix of benefits and costs.

Second, although many Americans blithely assert that all Iranians—hardliners and reformists alike—are unswervingly committed to acquiring nuclear weapons, Iran’s internal debate suggests otherwise.

Iran’s faltering economy is the Achilles’ heel of the theocratic regime, creating widespread unhappiness that threatens its hold on power.

Iranians know that they must have huge doses of foreign trade, aid and investment if their economy is going to recover, and some are arguing that this should be a higher priority than acquiring nuclear weapons.

The European proposal is a preliminary, and so far inadequate, effort at what is our best hope of derailing Iran’s nuclear program: convincing Iran that its economy will sink or swim based on whether it is willing to give up its drive for nuclear weapons.

Third, the goal of persuading Iran to give up its quest for the bomb cannot realistically be accomplished by Europe alone. Changing Iran’s incentive structure requires the involvement of both Europe and the United States for the simple reason that each side has practically exhausted its positive (in the case of Europe) or negative (in the case of the U.S.) incentives. Europeans cannot offer many more carrots since they already talk and trade with, invest in and buy oil from Iran, while the United States has only a few more sticks since it already refuses to do any of those things. The only conceivable way of increasing the impact of the Western approach is if the United States is willing to throw in some carrots and the European Union is willing to apply more sticks.

Finally, the unfortunate reality is that the United States has very few viable alternatives to some form of engagement with Iran. An invasion of the country, more than three times as big and populous as Iraq, and with the U.S. Army fully occupied in Iraq, is currently implausible and could be disastrous given the rabid nationalism of most Iranians.

Targeted air and missile strikes might be able to set back the nuclear program, but we currently lack the intelligence to know how meaningful such a setback would be. What we do know is that undertaking such strikes would almost certainly provoke painful retaliation by Tehran, like unleashing a covert war to destabilize Iraq or supporting terrorist attacks on the U.S. Any use of military force, moreover, would transform a contingent, cautious and gradual Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons into an all-out, determined race in that direction, requiring an American readiness to use such force over and over again.

The best way for Washington to help persuade Iran to get out of the nuclear weapons business for good is to join forces with our European allies and present Tehran with a clear choice: Iran can become an impoverished, isolated, pariah state with nuclear weapons or it can begin to reintegrate with the international community, meet the needs of its population, and preserve its security in exchange for forgoing them. The current European effort is far from perfect, but the right answer is for the United States to get involved and help fix it, rather than standing on the sidelines and criticizing—fiddling like Nero while Rome burns.