In Iran, the U.S. Can't Stay on the Sidelines


Dec 2, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on December 2, 2004.

WASHINGTON — When is the United States going to do something about the Iranian nuclear program? For several years the U.S. government has stood by while Iran has moved ever closer to the point where it could, if it chose, quickly develop and deploy atomic weapons. Throughout this period Washington has neither offered new American concessions nor threatened new American sanctions.

At the recent conference on Iraq in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly managed to get through an entire dinner conversation with Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Karrazi, without ever mentioning the nuclear issue. U.S. policy consists exclusively of calling attention to the threat, insisting that it is ever more urgent, and urging others to do something about it.

European governments, specifically the British, French and Germans, have taken up the task of curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions without American participation or material support. The Europeans are prepared to offer Iran economic and political incentives to abandon its nuclear weapons program, and also seem ready to threaten political isolation and economic sanctions if Iran does not. The United States offers or threatens neither.

Washington is not ready to join the Europeans in negotiating limits on Iran's program, nor is it willing to offer any incentives. Conversely, the United States cannot threaten Iran with political isolation or economic sanctions because America already has in place a comprehensive economic embargo and blackout on communication.

Whereas the United States has dealt with Libya and North Korea — two other rogue states with nuclear ambitions — in a balanced and multilateral framework, it has adopted a rigid and unilateral approach to Iran. America has refused to negotiate, to offer concessions or to join in multilateral economic and political arrangements that its European allies may negotiate.

U.S. officials characterize this as a “good cop, bad cop” approach. But while Europe offers carrots, Washington brandishes no sticks. Given American difficulties in Iraq, a military invasion of Iran is implausible. An aerial attack on known nuclear sites in Iran might slow that country's weapons program, but only at the cost of accelerated efforts at clandestine sites. Far from acting as a “bad cop,” Washington is no more than an excited bystander offering advice from a safe distance.

Behind Washington's ever more dire warnings and the calls to have the issue of Iran's nuclear program referred to the UN Security Council lies a deadlock within the U.S. administration over Iran that persisted throughout President George W. Bush's first term. Iran is the only country bordering both Afghanistan and Iraq and is the most important country bordering either. Despite decades of mutual tension, Tehran offered to be helpful on the former and could be decisive on stabilizing the latter, yet the Bush administration has not pursued a dialogue on either matter.

With the collapse of the Taliban in late 2001, Iran played an essential role in helping broker agreements among the various Afghan factions to appoint Hamid Karzai to head a new government in Kabul. Early in 2002, Tehran offered to expand its support to the Karzai government and said it was willing to do so under American leadership. Iranian officials made clear their hope that cooperation on Afghanistan would eventually lead to progress on other issues in the relationship. Washington failed to respond to the Iranian offer, and thereafter cut off dialogue on Afghanistan and other issues.

It is hard to prove that dialogue with Iran would have produced better results than its absence. Tehran has continued to support Karzai despite Washington's failure to take up its offer of cooperation. Among Iraq's neighbors, Iran is most strongly in support of the American desire hold democratic elections in Iraq on schedule this coming January, and Tehran may have been instrumental in persuading the radical Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr to abandon violent opposition and enter the political process.

On the other hand, Iran continues to flood Iraq with intelligence agents, to support radical Palestinian groups and to pursue at least the option of nuclear weapons. It is difficult, however, to demonstrate how engaging Tehran on these issue would have produced worse results.

An active policy toward Iran would require that Washington set priorities. There are obvious possibilities for cooperation on Afghanistan and Iraq. If blocking Iran's nuclear weapons aspirations is as urgent as it would seem, then engagement on that issue is imperative. At present, nothing Iran does or fails to do will alter the American posture. This unyielding attitude undercuts the prospects for Europe's effort to negotiate a positive resolution to the nuclear crisis. It also provides the weakest possible basis for common action in the absence of such a settlement.

James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state and special envoy for Afghanistan, directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corp.

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