For a new Iran policy

For a new Iran policy

Bulletin article
Christoph Bertram
01 April 2008

For almost six years now the West has tried – and failed – to stop the Iranian nuclear programme. Instead, nuclear enrichment has become a matter of Iranian national pride and sovereignty. The programme has been intensified, rather than slowed, in response to international pressure. In the end, Iran may become both a nuclear weapons state and an avowedly anti-Western one, in a region of immense importance to the West’s security and prosperity. To get out of this dangerous strategic cul-de-sac, western leaders must stand back and rethink. Here are five steps, from the modest to the most ambitious, that they should consider urgently.

First, stop sanctions. Sanctions will not work. The US Government Accountability Office, in a report issued in December 2007, concluded the obvious: “Iran’s global trade ties and leading role in energy production make it difficult for the United States to isolate Iran and pressure it to reduce proliferation and support for terrorism.”

Second, restart negotiations. For this, the pre-condition that Tehran should first suspend all nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities, as set down by the UN Security Council, must be dropped. It is true that in negotiations with the EU-3, the group consisting of France, Britain and Germany, the Iranian side agreed to a temporary suspension. But Iran revoked the suspension in 2005, scuppering the expectation in the West that it would become indefinite. Today, the chances of obtaining a similar suspension are practically zero.

Nor will new negotiations deliver an eventual end to nuclear enrichment and reprocessing in Iran. In 2003, the leadership feared a possible US attack and offered Washington a deal including the indirect recognition of Israel and a halt to support for Hamas and Hizbollah. But even then, Iran insisted that its civilian nuclear programme would be maintained, although under tight International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) controls. Today even Shireen Ebadi, an Iranian civil rights activist and the winner of the Nobel peace prize, argues that no Iranian government could give up the programme. The best outcome that negotiations could now produce would be for Iran to formally agree on wider monitoring rights for the IAEA, in exchange for the acceptance of its nuclear programme. That would at least be an improvement on the present state of affairs.

Third, launch a policy of détente. The western policy of confrontation has strengthened those political forces in Iran that stand for domestic repression and international defiance, possibly backed by nuclear weapons. If the West relaxed pressure on Iran, support for the hardliners would diminish as the nuclear option became less urgent. It would also bring to international attention and under domestic scrutiny other issues in Iran, such as human rights violations and economic backwardness. The West has neglected these in its exclusive focus on the nuclear programme.

A strategy of détente would require the West to confirm that Iran has the right to enrich nuclear materials for civilian purposes under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and make a convincing offer to discuss and seek equitable solutions to other outstanding security issues in the region. Since the confrontation is essentially between Tehran and Washington, the US has to take the initiative. Fortunately, the two Democratic candidates for the US presidency have indicated a willingness to move in this direction. European governments, instead of trying to outdo US hardliners, should adopt a similar stance, even if the White House stays in the hands of the Republicans. The Iranian government, for whom a confrontational relationship has been comforting, would not be able to endlessly refuse engagement without risking domestic and international support.

Fourth, aim for a long-term partnership with Iran. The West needs to open its eyes to the immense advantage of a close and co-operative relationship with this country. Partnerships between states are based on a cool assessment that common interests co-exist with differing ones. Western governments have close ties with many countries led by less-than admirable regimes. If Russia, China or Saudi Arabia qualify as ‘strategic partners’, why not Iran – a country with a highly educated population, a vibrant civil society, numerous social and cultural links to the West, and a shared interest in regional stability?

For the West, the attraction of a close and co-operative relationship with the second most important owner of energy resources globally, and a pivotal Gulf state, should be obvious, as is the undesirability of an Iran permanently hostile to Europe and the US. The chief obstacle to a partnership with Iran is Tehran’s attitude to Israel – exemplified by the current president’s declaration that Israel “should be removed from the annals of history”. Western governments must therefore make an offer of a strategic partnership with Iran dependent on the formal revocation of that declaration.

Lastly, return to a sense of proportion. Iran may still build the bomb, whether the West sticks to confrontation or starts co-operation. While highly undesirable, that would not be the catastrophe many in the West claim. Iran already holds an influential position in the region, regardless of nuclear weapons. And since Israel’s nuclear status has not accelerated proliferation in the region, why should Iran’s? Moreover, the West retains the instruments of deterrence and containment that served it well in the Cold War. Should Iran ever contemplate launching such a weapon, the prospect of massive counter-attacks that would make it the first victim of such folly retains high credibility. Iran’s leadership is not suicidal. Deterrence can work.

In contrast to the present western approach, a policy of negotiation and détente would encourage a more co-operative Iranian response to international concerns about the nuclear programme, as well as a different overall relationship. The choice is simple: we will either have an Iran hostile to the West and moving closer to nuclear weapons status. Or we may have an Iran that is not so hostile to the West and more flexible on the nuclear question. This is a prize that warrants replacing the current western strategy.


Christoph Bertram is former director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

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