"The Security Council passes more and more resolutions; Iran installs more and more centrifuges." Though this early assessment of the West's current approach to the Iranian nuclear program was spoken by no less a figure than Former Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran, Gholamali Khoshrou, many, also in the West, would agree today. In fact, Iran is advancing well on its way to "master the enrichment circle", that would allow Tehran to build a nuclear weapon. The transatlantic partners should draw three lessons from their engagements so far in order to have a bigger impact on Iran's nuclear policy.
Lesson One: Decide on a Strategy!
The West's current approach runs the risk of failure. While Iran enriches uranium, a nuclear weapon in Tehran's hands becomes more likely. That poses dangers to the region's stability, might provoke a nuclear arms race around the Gulf or even provoke an Israeli military strike. Basically, the West has three broad alternatives to challenge this situation:
First, the West itself could try to stop the Iranian nuclear program with a military strike, as it has more effective means than Israel and therefore an allied strike is more likely to be successful. But a military strike bears extremely high costs, probably too high to be paid. Israel would be counterattacked, terrorists would target western embassies and tourists worldwide, and the economy would have to cope with a new oil shock, as Iran probably will block the Strait of Hormuz.
A second, but not more convincing, alternative would be to accept a nuclear armed Iran. This policy approach would have to deal with well-known instruments, such as containment, deterrence, and, also, détente. It would include guaranteeing a nuclear shield to countries around the region, above all, Israel. Massive anti-ballistic missile defense systems would have to be installed. This approach would also include arming countries such as Saudi-Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to strengthen their military power. But no one knows if Israel would accept such a situation or if it would try to prevent it by attacking Iran alone.
The third option, a new diplomatic offensive that leaves behind deadlocked talks, seems to be the best option available. Only in case of failure, the other options should be reconsidered seriously (while preparations should start today).
Lesson Two: What Does the West Want?
The ultimate objective of negotiations is to convince Iran not to build a nuclear weapon. Negotiations should concentrate on this issue and leave behind talking about uranium enrichment activities, which are legal to all signatories of the Nonproliferation Treaty, one of whom Iran is. Enrichment ultimately has to be accepted (but controlled, as envisaged under the treaty). The Tehran regime is criticized not only for its nuclear program, but also for its poor human rights record, it's crushing of last year's protests against flawed elections, support of terrorism and repeated threats against Israel, especially by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While all these issues raise concerns worldwide, it is unlikely that they can all be resolved simultaneously. President George W. Bush introduced the concept of "regime change" to solve all these major problems, but that resulted in failure. In effect it meant, as Richard Haas, former Director of Policy Planning in the State Department put it: "We are telling Iran ‘We want regime change, but while you're still here, we'd like to negotiate with you to stop your nuclear program.'" The West should concentrate on the nuclear program first and discuss other issues later.
Lesson Three: Analyze Iran's Objectives!
Negotiations with Iran, if meant to be successful, have to offer Iran and the regime some incentives. To be able to offer, Iranian goals have to be identified more clearly. Tehran's objectives benefit not only the country, but, of course, also the regime. The West should figure out how to favor the population without helping the regime too much. Iranian objectives can be grouped in three categories: economy, prestige, and security.
Iran has the second biggest natural gasoline and the third biggest crude oil reserves worldwide. But Iran does not have sufficient capacities to refine its crude oil. Thus, alternative energy sources, as nuclear power, are reasonable. Oil also can be exported and may yield a higher price. The nuclear energy program thus could enhance export revenues for Iran's economy. Also, developing a nuclear program gives the regime the chance to channel funds needed for this program to loyal parts of society, like the religious foundations and the revolutionary guards that in effect own large industrial complexes.
The West currently threats Iran with more and more sanctions. A more successful way might be to offer strong incentives. The transatlantic partners should accept Iran's desire to develop a nuclear energy program in principle and support it. Help should be offered, as envisaged by the Nonproliferation Treaty, if Iran accepts controls. Further incentives would evolve around Iran's accession to the World Trade Organization and the modernization of the country's petrol industry. By doing so, Iran's independent economy would be strengthened. However, sanctions should continue to be part of the strategy. But, it should be indicated which sanction will be lifted as a result of certain concessions Iran makes. The reaction on any of Iran's concessions should follow as quickly as possible. All of these measures should be adopted collectively by the U.S., the EU and its member states. By concentrating on incentives, resistance by UN-Security Council members China and Russia could be overcome. Also, incentives cannot be presented to the Iranian public by the regime as threats, causing a "rally-around-the-flag"-effect.
Iran has an extremely rich and long history, dating back to the ancient Persian Empire that used to be the major rival of the Greek city states. Today, many Iranians feel not being taken seriously by the world. Mastering the nuclear fuel circle - and maybe ultimately constructing nuclear weapons - could boost Iran's image as a strong and advanced nation. The nuclear program itself is supported by an overwhelming part of the population. Forcing Iran to give up some of the rights others states have (such as uranium enrichment) might be rejected by the population. For the regime itself, advancements in this program enhance its internal prestige and thus create support. This effect would be most welcome, particularly after last year's anti-regime protests in Tehran.
The west should react to these desires. It should start with the recognition that Iran's leaders are acting rationally (though currently hostile), instead of mad or stupid. It should also recognize Iran's history and culture. Areas should be identified, in which mutual trust could be created, for example by organizing joint cultural events, or even in the Afghanistan policy, where Iran has strong interests. Being taken seriously abroad and consulted more regularly could enhance the country's (but also the regime's) prestige. Europeans and the U.S. together should also reinforce their efforts in the Middle East peace process, as this would have a (negative) impact on the regime's propaganda possibilities.
If Iran does in fact construct nuclear weapons (an objective it is likely to pursue), the security situation in the Greater Middle East would change dramatically. Iran would have at its command the ultimate weapon as it could react to all attacks with a nuclear strike. More importantly, Iran's regime would protect itself effectively against any attempts to regime change, as was proposed by the Bush administration and voices in Congress. Watching the death of its rival Saddam Hussein after his capture in Iraq might have reinforced the wish to avoid that destiny.
As long as Iran and especially the regime fear an attack by the U.S. or Israel, they will seek a nuclear protective shield and agreement will be impossible. The U.S., the predominant actor in the security field, would have to guarantee Iran no more than it did to North Korea or Libya: No violence and no regime change, as long as Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. This guarantee should be reinforced by declarations by Congress (which, of course, will be hard to obtain), because Iran's leaders are fearful that a new president might change this policy again.
Given the alternatives, diplomatic efforts should be boosted now, while there is still a chance to reach agreement. Whereas the U.S. might have to change its policy in a more radical way, the EU would finally have to overcome its inactivity, both vis-à-vis Iran and in persuading the U.S. of this new approach. Germany should set the Iran policy at the top of its foreign policy agenda and advocate the altered strategy both in the EU and abroad.
Tobias Sauer is a student of political science, history, and cultural anthropology at the University of Trier.
This article is shortlisted for atlantic-community.org's student
competition "Ideas with Impact: Policy Workshop 2010" sponsored by the
U.S. Mission to Germany.
Read the other shortlisted articles in the category "Iran's Nuclear Program" here.