After weeks of wrangling, the US has finally obtained a presidential statement from the United Nations Security Council calling on Iran to honour its International Atomic Energy Agency obligations. In a typically defiant note, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, dismissed the message as "an abuse of international mechanisms". Far from resolving the Iranian nuclear threat, the debate in New York underscored the fragility of the international coalition and the strength of Iranian determination to proceed with its programme.
However, it is by no means inevitable that Iran will become the nuclear club's next member. A more adroit American diplomacy could still dissuade Tehran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Conventional thinking in Washington holds that since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran's hardline president, last year, Tehran's nuclear decisions are made by a narrow cadre of conservatives, determined to acquire the bomb. But in reality a subtle but real debate has broken out within the theocratic regime on how to proceed.
The hardliners associated with Mr Ahmadi-Nejad insist that conflict with the US is inevitable and that the only means of ensuring regime security is through possession of a strategic weapon. In contrast, pragmatists led by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are said to be arguing that Iran's ongoing integration into the international order requires accepting certain restrictions on the nuclear programme. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, seems prone to appease both factions without conclusively resolving the dispute.
As Iran's nuclear programme matures, another dynamic is entering the debate: public opinion. Far from being a source of restraint, the emerging popular sentiment is that, as a great civilisation with a long history, Iran has the right to acquire nuclear capability. Such nationalistic sentiments further restrain the choices of the clerical elite.
To properly address the complexities of the Iranian challenge, Washington should appreciate that its policy of relentlessly threatening Iran with economic coercion and even military reprisals only empowers reactionaries and validates their pro-nuclear argument. In order to achieve its counter-proliferation objectives, the US must build the other side of the equation by explaining the benefits Iran would derive from abandoning the same nuclear option that India, Pakistan and Israel have successfully chosen. Only an array of incentives will allow Iran's leaders to justify suspending the programme in the face of nationalistic public opinion, aroused in no small degree by continual US threats.
A more tactically nuanced US diplomacy would also have the best chance of sustaining the fragile international coalition. After years of inconclusive European negotiations and now tortuous UN diplomacy, it is time for the Bush administration to appreciate that the only way to act against Iranian proliferation is through participation in direct negotiations with Tehran. Given that Iran's nuclear ambitions are motivated by its unpredictable neighbourhood and its tense relations with America, a US-Iran discussion on how best to stabilise the Persian Gulf could go a long way towards diminishing the theocracy's nuclear appetite.
The newly announced US-Iran official talks on ways to stabilise Iraq provide an ideal occasion for the two sides to begin exploring those issues. Such talks need not deal with or even mention the nuclear issue - and if, as a result of those talks, both parties are reassured about the other's longer-term regional intentions, that could lead to more productive dialogue on the nuclear issue in another forum.
Bilateral talks should not diminish the need for multilateral diplomacy. On the contrary. If the US, Russia, China and the three European powers proposed talks with Tehran on issues of common concern in exchange for suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment activities, this would give Iran's pragmatists a viable path out of their dilemma. US participation in such multilateral talks would be the best way of holding the key Security Council members together, increasing the pressure on Tehran and offering Iran, at the same time, the widest range of incentives for responsible behaviour.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; James Dobbins directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp
This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on April 4, 2006.