WASHINGTON—It is time for the United States to appreciate that it cannot afford to remain on the sidelines of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear intentions and subcontract the talks to its European allies.
Washington should take a leaf from its North Korea playbook instead of relying on Russian offers to Iran, European diplomacy and cumbersome International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) procedures. A new framework of negotiations featuring the United States, the European Union’s Britain, France and Germany, plus Russia and China, combined with a generous offer of security and economic incentives, may be the only way to reverse Iran’s nuclear trajectory at this late date.
For two years, Washington has relied on the combined pressures of European negotiations and the IAEA inspection process to check Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The “Iranian-EU-3” discussions, which reconvened in Vienna last week, essentially urged Iran to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for various trade and security concessions.
The problem is that the incentives Iran would require in order to abandon a program it views as vital to its national security cannot be delivered by Europe. It is, after all, U.S. sanctions that prevent Iran from being fully integrated into the global economy and gaining access to international lending institutions.
Moreover, at a time when Iran is surrounded by U.S. military power in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is unrealistic to discuss security assurances that do not involve the United States.
The U.S. reliance on the IAEA and the potential referral of Iran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions is equally misplaced. The IAEA Board of Governors can invoke the prospect of multilateral sanctions for documented violations. But IAEA prescriptions cannot ameliorate Iran’s security concerns or economic vulnerabilities. It would be difficult for Tehran to relinquish its nuclear program without corresponding benefits.
The most recent Russian offer to enrich uranium fuel for Iranian nuclear reactors also cannot be viewed as a panacea because Iran persistently has stressed its right to enrich its own nuclear fuel. Should Iran’s clerical elite relinquish part of the nuclear infrastructure without garnering tangible concessions, it is likely to confront a popular backlash. Iran argues that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Along the North Korean model, Washington should establish a six-party contact group that would make a united approach to Iran. The United States could offer relief from sanctions, including U.S. investment in Iran’s energy.
In exchange for such concessions, the U.S. and its allies could demand that Iran accept verifiable restraints on its nuclear capabilities, including a permanent cessation of its fuel enrichment. Enriched uranium can be used to make weapons-grade plutonium.
Given the nationalistic sensitivity surrounding this issue, it might not be necessary for Tehran to publicly declare its relinquishment of its fuel enrichment rights; instead, it could accept a suspension that in practice would be permanent. Indeed, if Iran were to reject such a generous offer, it would be much easier for Washington to craft a consensus behind a rigorous regime of multilateral sanctions enacted through the Untied Nations.
In the past 20 years, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa eventually retreated from the nuclear precipice. Although each state is different, in all cases, lessened external threats have been critical to abandonment of nuclear ambitions.
Similarly, economic incentives such as favorable commercial ties have been effective because they provide palpable benefits to ruling elites. It is rare, however, for a state that views the bomb as fundamental to its security interests to dispense with such a weapon under relentless threats of military reprisal and economic strangulation.
It appears that a clever mixture of incentives and penalties can accomplish more in counterproliferation than can warnings and coercion.
The Bush administration must accept that its doctrine of military pre-emption and its threats of Security Council referrals have a limited use in altering Iran’s path. A concerted diplomatic effort led by the United States and its allies may go a long way toward ensuring the success of the international community’s nonproliferation imperatives.