YEREVAN – Once again, the issue of bombing or sanctioning Iran has resurfaced. For years, debate about Iran has oscillated between two bad alternatives. Some are convinced that a nuclear Iran is the worst of all possible scenarios, worse even than the fall-out from a pre-emptive strike. But neither a nuclear-armed Iran nor air strikes against it are wise options, certainly not for this region.
The repercussions of bombing Iran should be clear: closure of the Straits of Hormuz, skyrocketing oil prices, possible retaliation against Israel (regardless of the origin of the attack), and even greater turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the only certainty of any pre-emptive strike is irreparable and long-lasting damage to regional security and political and economic stability.
Of course, the alternative is no safer. A nuclear-armed Iran would change the entire region’s security environment, and, given the enmity between Israel and Iran, two such nuclear powers facing off against each other would pose a threat.
The way out of this dilemma is to understand what Iran wants – and how to accommodate it without jeopardizing anyone’s security.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Iran wants to develop uranium enrichment technology for industrial use. Everyone agrees that Iran has the right to do so. But the world is split over whether to believe that Iran is actually doing what it says.
If as some argue Iran is being disingenuous, then once it achieves this first phase – uranium enrichment for industrial purposes – it can easily slide into weapons-grade enrichment, leaving the international community out in the cold, with no channels of communication, no observation teams in place, and no monitors ready to sound the whistle.
That is why the world must not remain focused on the already-lost first phase. Iran has more than 3,000 centrifuges despite all the international sanctions and threats. Instead, the world must focus on the second phase, because it is weapons potential that is the looming danger, and it is here that internationally mandated mechanisms for oversight and supervision exist.
The Iranians have always said that they will continue to honor their commitments and open their doors to observation as members of the non-proliferation community. But the international community must be more respectful of Iran’s current industrial aims if it wants Iranian cooperation.
The first step is to assuage Iran’s feeling of being besieged. Fortunately, there are voices in America and elsewhere that advocate engaging Iran at the highest level. But, to talk with Iran effectively, one must understand Iranian values and thinking.
Iranians have a sense of seniority, if not superiority, born of a rich and ancient culture that has survived into modern times. But they also have a historically ingrained sense of insecurity, owing to frequent conquest and domination, which is being aggravated today by the presence of American troops to their west in Iraq and to their east in Afghanistan. Their outlook nowadays is the product of these two worldviews – suspicious of others’ motives and proud of themselves as smart, tough negotiators and not without their own resources.
In my meetings with the current and past leaders of Syria and Iran, as well as in my meeting with Saddam Hussein, I heard them all say the same thing: the West is out to get them. Their explanation was that the West is uncomfortable with the motives and behavior of ideological states – Syria, Iran, and Iraq under Saddam were states with causes – Islam, Arab unity, or anti-Zionism.
For Iranians, as bearers of faith and national pride, responses that seem to others self-righteous and irrational are, in fact, necessary and acceptable.
The case of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction is a historic example of a willingness to go to hell with your head held high. Saddam knew that he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, but he was unwilling to concede the right of inspectors to ask.
As in North Korea, Iran’s neighbors might provide the right mechanism to create a more transparent relationship between Iran and the world. In the so-called “six-party talks,” North Korea’s neighbors offered tangible incentives to Kim Jong-il’s regime to abandon its nuclear program. The most prominent of these was an end to North Korea’s economic isolation.
Iran, too, feels besieged, though it is not isolated: it depends heavily on trade, and not just as a seller of oil. Two-thirds of its population is under the age of 30, and unemployment is high; it needs to attract foreign investment for its oil and gas industry, and to finance road construction and other infrastructure projects.
Comparisons with neighboring Turkey are instructive. Before Iran’s Islamic revolution, it led Turkey in foreign direct investment, income per head, and GDP growth. Now Turkey has moved ahead, and may even join the European Union.
Other regional comparisons further reinforce that trend. The Qataris have outstripped them in exploiting the huge gas field they share. Tiny Dubai draws in far more foreign investment: Iranians go there for banking, trade, and fun.
Iran’s neighbors need to convince Iran’s rulers that Iranians, too, can participate in the region’s growth, and even become regional leaders. Only an open Iran, fully integrated into the regional economy and granted a role commensurate to its size and economic potential, will be able to moderate its siege mentality.
Here, a vital step would be for the West to begin to envisage Iran as a potential alternative supplier of gas, by offering to link Iran to the proposed White Stream and Nabucco pipelines that are currently under development to bring Central Asian gas to Europe.
The world’s judgments about Iran’s motives and actions should not be distorted by Iranian pride. We can only understand Iran’s real intentions by engaging the Iranians – not cornering them.