As President Bush addressed the Israeli parliament last week, denouncing negotiations with recalcitrant regimes as the “false comfort of appeasement,” his diplomats, in conjunction with their European counterparts, offered Iran another incentive package to stop enriching uranium. Even though they are making another effort to disarm Iran through mediation, the administration’s approach is hopelessly defective. Beyond insisting on onerous conditions that are unlikely to be met by any Iranian government, the United States and its allies still hope that Tehran will trade its enrichment rights for inducements. If Washington is going to mitigate the Iranian nuclear danger, it must discard the formula of exchanging commercial contracts for nuclear rights and seek more imaginative solutions.
Although Iran’s theocratic regime is perennially divided against itself, it has sustained a remarkable consensus on the nuclear issue. In today’s political climate, neither Western sanctions nor offers of incentives will fracture state unity. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rejected any compromise, saying that “we will forcefully continue on our path and will not allow the oppressors to step on our rights.” In a rare note of agreement, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khamenei’s rival and a politician known for his pragmatism, has similarly claimed, “It is our natural right; if we retreat on this path, we will allow the enemy to interfere with every issue of our country.”
Across the Iranian political spectrum, the nuclear program is seen as an attribute of a great power and an indicator of scientific achievement. To be sure, an advanced nuclear infrastructure would also provide Iran with a capacity to assemble bombs and attain its regional hegemonic aspirations.
Moreover, while Western powers seem frustrated with their strategies and continuously tinker with them, Iran is both satisfied and successful. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s firebrand president, has noted that the “nuclear issue demonstrates that if we stand firm, they will back down.” At a time when the United States is preoccupied with Iraq, and China and Russia both view Iran as a commercial opportunity rather than a strategic threat, it is hard to argue with Ahmadinejad’s bombastic assertions.
After three years of inconclusive diplomacy, it is time to discard the formula of “suspension for incentives” for one that trades “enrichment for transparency.” Under such a formulation, Western powers would concede to Iranian indigenous enrichment capability of considerable size in exchange for an intrusive inspection regime that would ensure nuclear material is not being diverted for military purposes. Such verification procedures must go beyond the measures in place; they should encompass 24-hour monitoring, continuous environmental sampling and the permanent presence of inspectors who have the right to visit any facility without prior notification. Moreover, Iran’s breakout capacity must be constrained by limiting the amount of fissile material it is allowed to keep in stock. The relevant question is no longer whether Iran will have a nuclear infrastructure but how we can regulate the program and make certain that untoward activities are not taking place.
Iran’s surging nuclear ambitions reflect the limits of American power. While Bush makes threat after threat and Western foreign ministers gather in various conclaves, Iran continues to expand its nuclear capacity. Though hardly ideal, the advantage of a plan that trades enrichment for transparency is that it meets Iran’s nationalistic mandates while also alleviating the great powers’ proliferation concerns. Should an intransigent Islamic Republic reject such a generous offer, it might affect Chinese and Russian calculations.
In an ideal universe, Iran would not be spinning a single centrifuge. In the here and now, though, Iran has an elaborate nuclear apparatus and is enriching uranium. It is impossible to turn back the clock. Instead of reviving an incentive package rejected long ago by Iran or issuing calls for military retribution that worry no one in the country’s hierarchy, the United States and its European allies would be wise to negotiate an arrangement that would meet at least some of their demands. This may just be the last chance we have before Iran crosses the nuclear weapons threshold.
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