What do we do with Iran?
IRAN’S nuclear programme and considerable resources enable it to strive for strategic dominance in its region. With the impetus of a radical Shia ideology and the symbolism of defiance of the UN Security Council’s resolution, Iran challenges the established order in the Middle East and perhaps wherever Islamic populations face dominant, non-Islamic majorities.
The appeal for diplomacy to overcome these dangers has so far proved futile. The negotiating forum the world has put in place for the nuclear issue is heading for a deadlock, probably irresolvable, except in a wider geopolitical context. Such a negotiation has not yet found a forum. In any event, divisions among the negotiating partners inhibit a clear sense of direction.
The five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany —known as the Six —have submitted a package of incentives to Teheran to end enrichment of uranium as a key step towards putting an end to the weapons programme. They have threatened sanctions if their proposal is rejected. Iran has insisted on its ‘right’ to proceed with enrichment, triggering an allied debate about the nature of the sanctions to which the Six have committed themselves. Even the minimal sanctions proposed by the E-3 (the European Three —the UK, France, and Germany) have been rejected by Russia.
Reluctant to negotiate directly with a member of the "axis of evil,’’ the United States has not participated in the negotiations, giving its proxy to Javier Solana, the European Union high representative, who negotiates on behalf of the E-3. Recently, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has announced a reversal of policy. The US —and she herself —would participate in the nuclear talks, provided Iran suspends its enrichment programme while talks are taking place. But Teheran has so far shown no interest in negotiating with the United States, either in the multilateral forum or separately.
This is because Teheran sees no compelling national interest to give up its claim to being a nuclear power and strong domestic political reasons to persist. Pursuing the nuclear weapons programme is a way of appealing to national pride and shores up an otherwise shaky domestic support. The proposed incentives, even if they are believed, would increase Iran’s dependence on the international system that Iran’s current leaders reject.
The European negotiators accept the importance of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. But they govern societies increasingly loath to make immediate sacrifices for the sake of the future —witness the difficulty of passing legislation on domestic reform. Europe’s leaders know that their publics would not support military action against Iran and would probably prove very shaky in a prolonged political crisis over sanctions —an attitude on which Iran plays skilfully.
America’s European allies have decided to opt for minimum sanctions because they hope that the mere fact of united action by the Six will give Iran’s leaders pause. The conviction expressed by some European diplomats, that Iran will not wish to be a pariah nation indefinitely and will therefore come to an agreement, is probably wishful thinking. As this becomes apparent, the European allies will probably move reluctantly towards escalation of sanctions, up to a point where Iran undertakes a confrontational response, when they will have to make the choice between the immediate crisis and the permanent crisis of letting the Iranian nuclear programme run free.
The dilemma is inherent in any gradual escalation. If initial steps are minimal, they are presumably endurable (and are indeed chosen for that reason). The adversary may be tempted to wait for the next increment so that gradualism may, in the end, promote escalation and make inevitable the very decision being evaded.
Russia’s position is more complex. Probably no country —not even the US —fears an Iranian nuclear capability more than Russia, whose large Islamic population lies just north of the borders of Iran. No country is more exposed to the seepage of Iranian nuclear capabilities into terrorist hands or to the jihadist ideological wave that the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, encourages. For that very reason, Russia does not want to unleash Iranian hostility on itself without a prospect of probable success.
In addition, Russian attitudes towards the United States have undergone a significant change. There is a lessened commitment to strategic partnership. Suspicion has grown on both sides. The United States fears that Russia is striving to rebuild its imperial influence in what Russia calls the "near-abroad"; Russia believes that America is seeking to pressure the Kremlin to change its domestic policies and to reduce Russia’s international influence.
Because of its conviction that Iran will be a formidable adversary and its low assessment of the American effort in Iraq, the Kremlin doubts that the US has the staying power for a prolonged confrontation with Iran and chooses to avoid manning barricades on which it may be left alone. In consequence, Moscow has shifted its emphasis towards Europe and, on Iran, operationally shares Europe’s hesitation. The difference is that if matters reach a final crunch, Russia is more likely to take a stand, especially when an Iranian nuclear capability begins to look inevitable, even more when it emerges as imminent.
The nuclear negotiations with Iran are moving towards an inconclusive outcome. The Six eventually will have to choose between effective sanctions or the consequences of an Iranian military nuclear capability and the world of proliferation it implies. Military action by the US is extremely improbable in the final two years of a presidency facing a hostile Congress —though it may be taken more seriously in Teheran. Teheran surely cannot ignore the possibility of a unilateral Israeli strike if all negotiation options close.
More likely, the nuclear issue will be absorbed into a more comprehensive negotiation based on geopolitical realities. It is important, however, to be clear as to what this increasingly fashionable term implies.
The argument has become widespread that Iran (and Syria) should be drawn into a negotiating process, hopefully to bring about a change of their attitudes as happened, for example, in the opening to China a generation ago. This, it is said, will facilitate a retreat by the US to more strategically sustainable positions.
A diplomacy that excludes adversaries is clearly a contradiction in terms. But the argument on behalf of negotiating too often focuses on the opening of talks rather than their substance. The fact of talks is assumed to represent a psychological breakthrough. The relief supplied by a change of atmosphere is bound to be temporary, however. Diplomacy —especially with an adversary —can succeed only if it brings about a balance of interests. Failing that, it runs the risks of turning into an alibi for procrastination or a palliative to ease the process of defeat without, however, eliminating the consequences of defeat.
The opening to China was facilitated by Soviet military pressures on China’s northern borders; rapprochement between the US and China implemented an existing common interest in preventing Soviet hegemony. Similarly, the shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East made progress because it was built on a pre-existing equilibrium that neither side was able to alter unilaterally.
To the extent that talk becomes its own objective, there will emerge forums without progress and incentives for stonewalling. If, at the end of such a diplomacy, stands an Iranian nuclear capability and a political vacuum being filled by Iran, the impact on order in the Middle East will be catastrophic.
Understanding the way Teheran views the world is crucial in assessing the prospects of a dialogue. The school of thought represented by President Ahmadinejad may well perceive Iranian prospects as more promising than they have been in centuries. Iraq has collapsed as a counterweight; within Iraq, Shia forces are led by men who had been trained in Teheran and spent decades of their lives there. Democratic institutions in Iraq favour dominance by the majority Shia groups. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, trained and guided by Iran, is the strongest military force —much more powerful than the government over which it strives for at least a veto. In the face of this looming Shia belt and its appeal to the Shia population in northeast Saudi Arabia and along the Gulf, attitudes in the Sunni states —Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia —and the Gulf states range from unease to incipient panic. This may explain Ahmadinejad’s insolent behaviour on the occasion of his visit to New York. His theme seemed to be: "Don’t talk to me about your world order, whose rules we did not participate in making and which we disdain.
From now on, jihad will define the rules or at least participate in shaping them."
If that assessment of Iranian attitudes is correct, they will not be changed simply for the opportunity of talking to the United States. The self-confident Iranian leaders may facilitate a local American retreat but, in their present mood, only for the purpose of turning it into a long-term rout. The argument that Iran has an interest in negotiating over Iraq to avoid chaos along its borders is valid only as long as the US retains a capacity to help control the chaos. There are only two incentives for Iran to negotiate: the emergence of a regional structure that makes imperialist policies unattractive, or the concern that, if matters are pushed too far, America might yet strike out.
So long as Iran views itself as a crusade rather than a nation, a common interest will not emerge from negotiations. To evoke a more balanced view should be an important goal for US diplomacy. Iran may come to understand sooner or later that it is still a poor country not in a position to challenge the entire world order. But such an evolution presupposes the development of a precise and concrete strategic and negotiating programme by the US and its associates. Today the Sunni states of the region —Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the non-Shia government of Lebanon, the Gulf states —are terrified by the Shia wave. Negotiation between Iran and the US could generate a stampede towards preemptive concessions, unless preceded or at least accompanied by a significant effort to rally those states to a policy of equilibrium. In such a policy, Iran must find a respected, but not dominant, place. A restarted Palestinian peace process should play a significant role in that design, which presupposes close cooperation among the US, Europe and the moderate Arab states.
We must not flinch from this underlying reality. Iran needs to be encouraged to act as a nation, not a cause. It has no incentive to appear as a deus ex machina to enable America to escape its embarrassments, unless the US retains an ability to fill the vacuum or at least be a factor in filling it. America will need to reposition its strategic deployments, but if such actions are viewed as the prelude to an exit from the region, a collapse of existing structures is probable. A purposeful and creative diplomacy towards Iran is important for building a more promising region —but only if Iran does not, in the process, come to believe that it is able to shape the future on its own or if the potential building blocks of a new order disintegrate while America sorts out its purposes.
Henry A Kissinger, a former US secretary of state, is considered the architect of US foreign policy during the Cold War
Carlos Ghosn, the former CEO of Renault-Nissan, remains combative and maintains his innocence after his flight to Lebanon.
Man is rushing headlong into an epic confrontation that will reduce our planet to radioactive rubble. Powerful nations are busy...
I didn't expect the United States to do anything to help Idlib in its struggle against the savage Syrian and Russian attack but...
Australia needs better land-and fuel-load-management practices, and more funding for firefighting services.
Obstructing the movement of traffic by halting or parking at... READ MORE
Keeping in mind the weather conditions. READ MORE
Al Araimi had been found unconscious with a stab wound to his back at ... READ MORE
Mallgoers spotted the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince sitting in a café. READ MORE