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America has a golden chance to tame Iran

Authors: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, and Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
October 14, 2004
Financial Times


In a last-ditch effort to unravel Iran's nuclear programme, the EU3, the group of three European countries negotiating with Tehran about its nuclear ambitions, is planning to offer a compromise deal involving Iranian access to nuclear fuel in exchange for suspension of its uranium enrichment activities. The Bush administration, entangled in an intense domestic political campaign, seems to be warily eyeing the talks from the sidelines. Whatever intrigues within the western camp, the problem with the latest European initiative is its failure to account for the security motivations that drive Iran's nuclear ambitions. In the end, the key lies neither in concerted international pressure nor in selective concessions to Iran, but in building a new security architecture in the Persian Gulf.

From Iran's perspective, the Gulf is the most important strategic arena, as the most suitable link to the international petroleum market. Tehran's vital economic and security objectives have turned successive regimes away from external powers that seek to dominate the region and isolate Iran. At a time when US might seems to encircle Iran and Tehran's relations with Iraq remain unpredictable, nuclear weapons appear to have a degree of strategic utility. Through possession of such weapons, the clerical oligarchs think they can deter US designs and assert their claims in the vital waterways of the Gulf region. It would not be easy for the US and its allies to marginalise a nuclear Iran in its own backyard.

Given the Gulf's central role in Iran's nuclear calculations, the US should take effective measures to craft a regional framework that would not only alleviate Iran's anxieties but potentially usher in a more rational relationship between Washington and Tehran. Such a network could evolve gradually, beginning with confidence-building measures and arms control compacts and, eventually, lead to a full-scale security system that resembles institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Under the auspices of such a regional organisation, the local states could gradually extend their scope of co-operation and devise common markets and free trade zones. Such interlocking security and economic arrangements would give Iran, a historically revisionist state with nuclear aspirations, a stake in upholding a status quo compatible with its national interests. An Iran that enjoys favourable commercial ties with neighbours, a proper relationship with its historic Iraqi competitor and better relations with its perennial US foe may be persuaded that its nuclear plans no longer serve a viable need.

But the task of positioning Iran and the Gulf sheikdoms in the same security system would not be easy. Currently, the only regional security organisation is the Gulf Co-operation Council, originally established in 1981 to contain revolutionary Iran. However, it is worth noting that Iran is no longer seeking to up-end the regional order and subvert its Gulf neighbours. As part of its own "good neighbour" policy, Iran has done much to soften its image and expand co-operative ties within the region. With Saddam Hussein gone, the opportunity for development of durable institutions to secure the Gulf is unique and important.

Despite Washington's overall dismal image in the region, the US is actually in an excellent position to forge this type of institution. On the Arab side of the Gulf, Riyadh, Doha and Manama continue to see the US as the ultimate guarantor of their security - not unlike Washington's European allies in the cold war era. As these countries ponder the prospect of a nuclear capable neighbour, Washington could channel their concern into a lever for greater security co-operation, ultimately on a bilateral basis with Tehran. The very real prospect of a nuclear-capable Iran should provide impetus for the Gulf's Arab states to drop their differences in favour of co-operation.

In today's Iran, nuclear weapons are gradually emerging as a key component of the theocracy's deterrence doctrine. Although the European effort is a substantial improvement over America's failed containment policy, it still falls short. As the dominant regional power, the US has a unique opportunity to translate its victory over Mr Hussein into a new security framework that assures local states of their territorial integrity and provides an avenue for greater economic integration. Far more than the imperious doctrines of pre-emption and selective packaging of incentives, such a subtle policy could ensure that Iran voluntarily restrains its nuclear impulses.

The writers are fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations

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