Globalist: Between U.S. and Iran, no relations, but a need

Posted in Iran | 29-Sep-04 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

NEW YORK A reasonable case can be made that the country most critical to the geo-strategic fortunes of the United States these days is one with which it has no diplomatic or significant commercial relations: Iran.

The mullahs in Tehran are in a position to be helpful in neighboring Iraq or foment chaos through their Shiite surrogates. To the east, they are well placed to assist another major American undertaking, the democratization and pacification of Afghanistan, or they can undermine the process through support of regional warlords.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran's underwriting of Hezbollah and training of Palestinian militants constitute major factors in the conflict; any shift in Iranian policy would have a significant impact. At home, Iran holds several Al Qaeda suspects of an importance that has not been clarified but who would certainly be of interest to the Untied States.

Not least, we now know that while Iraq's nuclear program had become the empty fantasy of a deluded tyrant busy writing trashy novels by the time the United States invaded last year, Iran's nuclear ambitions are substantial and real. If weapons of mass destruction were the true target, America's aim was off by several hundred miles.

A pattern of concealment and incriminating clues - a trace of highly enriched uranium here, a spot of work on a heavy-water reactor there - have now convinced most Western democracies that Iran seeks and is within two or three years of nuclear bomb production, despite official insistence that Iran's sole interest is nuclear power for its energy needs.

Iran knows that all of the above gives it real leverage over the United States. In Iraq alone, its role could be decisive; it has already shown a readiness to be alternately conciliatory and confrontational. The country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also knows that America is stretched militarily. Taking on a second member of the "axis of evil," so named by President George W. Bush in 2002, would be a step too far.

At the same time, however, Iran does not wish to become an international pariah. The revolutionary fervor of a quarter-century ago has given way to greater realism. Commercial interests have prompted a push, resisted by the United States, to join the World Trade Organization. A majority of Iranians favor some form of engagement with America, and popular support for the hard-liners in the government is limited. All of this gives Washington some leverage over Iran. But although the two countries need each other, and have occasionally flirted in recent years, they remain mired in the oceans of bad blood between them, estranged and implacably hostile. Meanwhile, all of the indications are that Iran is pressing forward with its ambition to become a nuclear power, a status coveted by the mullahs as a guarantee of security and a potential source, as in Pakistan, of immense national pride.

"The United States, Europe and the Russians desperately need to get together to agree on a strategy that stops Iran by changing its calculation of benefits and risks," said Robert Einhorn, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation. "The Europeans have been soft, the Bush administration distracted, and the result is the Iranians see themselves in a strong position."

This month, the International Atomic Energy Agency gave Iran until Nov. 25 to halt all of its enrichment-related programs and meet other demands for clarification of the country's nuclear ambitions.

That was the lowest common denominator of agreement between the Europeans and the United States - and it was pretty low. Iran, in a deal brokered by the British, French and German foreign ministers, had already agreed a year ago to suspend its uranium-enrichment program, only to prevaricate, procrastinate, fudge and fiddle.

The Bush administration wants to refer Iran's past concealment and current evasions to the United Nations Security Council, a referral it hopes would lead to sanctions. The Europeans are wary of a confrontational approach, not least because they believe Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, could argue that it has the right under that treaty to enrich uranium for use in nuclear power plants - and that that is all it has set about doing.

All of this is enough to make any Atlanticist despair of ever seeing the Europeans and Americans get their act together these days over a major threat. Here we go again. The Europeans feel that John Bolton, the U.S. under secretary of state for nonproliferation, spends his time dismissing them as naïve stooges of the Iranians.

The Americans feel that the Europeans have gone hopelessly soft, with the biggest stick the old continent's wimps can muster now represented by the postponement of a carrot. Iran sees these cracks as wide as canyons and zips ahead with the assembly of centrifuges and the production of the uranium gas used to make enriched uranium.

In this gathering mess, four things seem clear. First, any effective policy toward Iran will require European-American cohesion. Second, whatever America's misgivings over Iran - going all the way back to the 1979 seizure of hostages and Hezbollah's 1983 attack on U.S. marines in Lebanon - the sheer extent of American interests hinging on some degree of cooperation with Tehran now appears to demand the opening of a dialogue, however limited. Third, an Iranian bomb would constitute an unacceptable threat to world peace, because of the links to terrorists that Iran maintains and because the region would be rapidly destabilized, with Saudi Arabia and Egypt scrambling to keep up. Fourth, America's ambitions to remake the Middle East, spreading democracy, are unlikely to go far so long as the 70 million citizens of Iran and their government sit on the sidelines of this enterprise.

"We are determined that they are not going to achieve a nuclear weapons capability," Bolton said of Iran this month. What was not clear was how. Bombast will go nowhere these days. America has moved into Iran's neighborhood. Nobody knows that neighborhood better or can pull more strings in it than the mullahs.