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Taking threats off the table before sitting with Iran

Author: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
May 3, 2007
The Boston Globe


As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with her Iranian counterpart this week in Egypt, the prospects of talks between the two enduring foes seem closer than before. However, for such negotiations to succeed, Washington must be prepared to adjust an important aspect of its rhetoric. It is customary for President Bush and his advisers to suggest that in dealing with Iran all options are on the table – a not-so-subtle allusion to the possibility of the use of force against Iran’s suspected nuclear facilities. Such rhetoric has proven contagious, as all the Democratic Party’s contenders for the presidency have embraced the notion that diplomatic flexibility mandates threat of force. The only problem with this bipartisan consensus is that it is legally unacceptable and strategically counterproductive. Indeed, the best manner of ensuring the cause of disarmament in Iran is to explicitly take the use of force off the table.

At a time when Washington continuously and correctly suggests that Iran’s refusal to suspend its nuclear enrichment activities violates successive Security Council resolutions, it is time to acknowledge that America’s own declarations of force contravenes the United Nations charter. Chapter one, Article two of the UN charter unambiguously declares, “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” At a time when Iran and the United States are not in the state of belligerency and the United Nations has not authorized the use of force against Tehran, Washington’s politicians’ bellicosity and pledges to revisit the military option has to be considered beyond the bounds of legal acceptance.

It would be too facile to claim that a country such as Iran that takes British sailors as hostages, openly flaunts its nuclear achievements, and calls for eradication of the state of Israel should not be treated with such considerations. However, given that the US-Iran dispute is playing itself out in the context of the United Nations and its mandates, it behooves Washington to make certain that its own conduct conforms to its legal obligations. For international law to have any value and for multilateral institutions to have any credibility, the world’s sole superpower must accept UN restrictions without political prejudice.

Beyond legal niceties, the advocacy of force as a last resort is strategically short sighted given Iran’s complex factional politics. Far from being a simple authoritarian state, the Islamic Republic is perennially divided against itself. Today, as competing factions of hard-liners and pragmatists struggle to define a coherent foreign policy, the American rhetoric and hostile posture only reinforces the resolve of the militants and affirms their claims regarding the necessity of nuclear weapons.

In the past few years the demographic complexion of Iranian leadership has been changing, with a younger generation coming to power. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the young rightists have not been molded by the revolution but the prolonged war with Iraq, leading them to be suspicious of the United States and the international community. For this cohort, America remains committed to regime change and cynically employs the United Nations as a means of multilateralizing its coercive policy. Given their perception of America’s immutable hostility, they see nuclear deterrent as critical for maintaining regime survival and Iran’s territorial integrity.

However, Ahmadinejad and his hard-line allies are arrayed against more pragmatic elements of the state and the elders of the revolution who urge caution. The influential former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the reformers led by former president Muhammad Khatami, and pragmatic conservatives such as the secretary of Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, appreciate that Iran’s integration into the global economy mandates adherence to its essential Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.

This is not to suggest that they seek to dismantle the nuclear infrastructure, but they do believe that Iran should proceed with circumspection and develop its program within the confines of its treaty responsibilities.

The American belligerence and its threats to use force only strengthens the argument of those who suggest that the best way of deterring America is through the possession of the bomb. It is hard for advocates of diplomacy to get far when Washington deploys a large armada off Iran’s coast and asserts the right to preemptive use of force. In one of the many paradoxes of Iran, the cause of nuclear defiance is enhanced by Washington’s rhetorical excess and aversion to meaningful dialogue with Tehran.

By taking the use of force off the table and embarking on a process of engagement entailing mutual recognition and dialogue on all issues of common concern, Washington can go far in undermining Iran’s reactionaries and their call for nuclear empowerment.

A policy of coercion and threats of military retribution undermines both the prospect of Iranian disarmament and moderation.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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