The Iran crisis is moving fast in an alarming direction. There can no longer be any reasonable doubt that Iran’s ambition is to obtain nuclear weapons capability. However, at the heart of the issue lies the Iranian regime’s aspiration to become a hegemonic Islamic and regional power and thereby position itself at eye level with the world’s most powerful nations. It is precisely this ambition that sets Iran apart from North Korea: whereas North Korea seeks nuclear weapons capability in order to entrench its own isolation, Iran is aiming for regional dominance and more.
Iran is betting on revolutionary changes within the power structure of the Middle East to help it achieve its strategic goal. To this end, it makes use of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also of Lebanon, Syria, its influence in the Gulf region, and, above all, Iraq. This combination of hegemonic aspirations, questioning of the regional status quo, and a nuclear program is extremely dangerous.
Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb – or even its ability to produce one – would be interpreted by Israel as fundamental threat to its existence, thereby compelling the West, and Europe in particular, to take sides. Europe has not only historical moral obligations to Israel, but also security interests that link it to the strategically vital Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, a nuclear Iran would also be perceived as a threat by its other neighbors, which would likely provoke a regional arms race and further fuel regional volatility. In short, nuclear Iran would call Europe’s fundamental security into question. To believe that Europe could keep out of this conflict is a dangerous illusion.
In this crisis, the stakes are high, which is why Germany, the UK, and France began negotiations with Iran two years ago with the goal of persuading Iran to abandon its efforts to close the nuclear fuel cycle. This initiative failed for two reasons. First, the European offer to open up technology and trade, including the peaceful use of nuclear technology, was disproportionate to Iran’s fundamental fear of regime change on the one hand, and its regional hegemonic aspirations and quest for global prestige on the other. Second, the disastrous US-led war in Iraq has led Iran’s leaders to conclude that the leading Western power has been weakened to the point that it is dependent on Iran’s goodwill, and that high oil prices have made the West all the more wary of a serious confrontation.
The Iranian regime’s analysis might prove a dangerous miscalculation, because it is likely to lead sooner rather than later to a “hot” confrontation that Iran simply cannot win. After all, the issue at the heart of this conflict is this: who dominates the Middle East – Iran or the United States? Iran’s leaders underestimate the explosive nature of this issue, and how it is answered, for the US as a global power and thus for its own future.
Nor, however, is the debate about the military option – the destruction of Iran’s nuclear program through US air strikes – conducive to resolving the issue. Rather, it rings of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no guarantee that attempts to destroy Iran’s nuclear potential and thus of its capability for a nuclear breakout will succeed. Moreover, as a victim of foreign aggression, Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions would be fully legitimized. Finally, a military attack on Iran would also mark the beginning of a regional, and possibly global, military and terrorist escalation – a nightmare for all concerned.
So what should be done? There remains a serious chance for a diplomatic solution if the US, in cooperation with the Europeans and thus certainly with the support of the Security Council and the non-aligned states of the Group of 77, offers Iran a “Grand Bargain.” In exchange for long-term suspension of uranium enrichment, Iran and other states would gain access to research and technology within an internationally defined framework and under comprehensive supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Full normalization of political and economic relations would follow, including binding security guarantees upon agreement of a regional security design.
The high price for refusing such a proposal has to be made absolutely clear to the Iranian leadership: should no agreement be reached, the West will do everything within its power to isolate Iran economically, financially, technologically, and diplomatically, with the full support of the international community. Iran’s alternatives should be no less than recognition and security, or total isolation.
Presenting Iran with these alternatives presupposes that the West does not fear rising oil and gas prices. Indeed, the two other options – Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power or the use of military force to prevent this – would, in addition to all of its horrible consequences, also increase oil and gas prices. Everything speaks in favor of playing the economic-financial and technology card vis-à-vis Iran.
Knowledge of the potentially horrible consequences of a military confrontation and of the equally horrific consequences of an Iran in possession of the atomic bomb must force the US to abandon its policy of no direct negotiations and its hope for regime change. It is not enough for the Europeans to act while the Americans continue to look on as the diplomatic initiatives unfold, partaking in discussion only behind the scenes and ultimately letting the Europeans do what they will. The Bush administration must lead the Western initiative in harmonized, direct negotiations with Iran, and, if these negotiations succeed, the US must also be willing to agree to appropriate guarantees. In this confrontation, international credibility and legitimacy will be the deciding factors, and ensuring them will require far-sighted and cool, calculated American leadership.
An offer of a “Grand Bargain” would unite the international community and present Iran with a convincing alternative. Were Iran to agree to this offer, its suspension of nuclear research in Natanz while negotiations are ongoing would be the litmus test of its sincerity. Were Iran to refuse the offer or fail to honor its obligations, it would totally isolate itself internationally and provide emphatic legitimization to further measures. Neither Russia nor China could avoid showing solidarity within the Security Council.
But such an initiative can succeed only if the American administration assumes leadership among the Western nations and sits down at the negotiating table with Iran. Even then, the international community would not have long to act. As all sides must be aware, time is running out for a diplomatic solution.