Counterproductive confrontation

January 31, 2007|By Charles D. Ferguson

On Jan. 20, a U.S. naval carrier battle group left the West Coast of the United States. Once this battle force arrives in the Persian Gulf region in February, the United States will have the largest concentration of naval power projection in that region since the start of the Persian Gulf war in 2003. It could then conduct round-the-clock air bombardment of Iran.

Frustrated that the late December U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning Iran for not suspending its nuclear program is too weak, the Bush administration is trying to increase pressure by compelling governments and financial institutions to cut ties with Iran. But sanctions and isolation can help Tehran's hard-liners. They welcome the confrontation with America, "the Great Satan," building support for themselves by rallying Iranians around the flag.

Ratcheting up pressure could lead the United States into an unnecessary war. A counterintuitive approach could win over Iranian pragmatists and reduce leverage for Iranian hard-liners. To free itself from an impending trap, the United States should try a new strategy that addresses the two main reasons for seeking nuclear weapons: prestige and security.

First, the United States should play to Persian pride by repeatedly acknowledging Iran's right to a complete, peaceful nuclear program. Iran has a long and proud history of intellectual accomplishments. This approach could build respect and trust.

Washington should also offer to talk to Tehran about any subject without conditions. The Bush administration insists that it will not speak directly with Iran until dual-use components of the nuclear program are suspended. Dual-use technologies include uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, which can make both reactor fuel and nuclear bomb material.

As a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear technologies so long as it does not acquire nuclear explosives and it maintains safeguards on its nuclear program. This right is commonly interpreted to include access to sensitive technologies such as uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. The United States wants to reinterpret that right to exclude certain countries from obtaining those technologies. Although it makes sense to limit the spread of potentially dangerous technologies, doing so in a discriminatory manner would likely backfire and push some countries to pursue acquisition.

In response to the latest Security Council sanctions, Iran's parliament has passed a declaration to "accelerate its nuclear program and revise its cooperation" with the International Atomic Energy Agency. As the world's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA has opened a window into Iran's nuclear program. But that window could slam shut if Iran is further made into a pariah. If this program becomes a black box, U.S. intelligence assessments could assume the worst and act accordingly, as we saw with the run-up to the Iraq war.

Last fall, John D. Negroponte, then director of national intelligence, said that Iran is five to 10 years away from being able to make a nuclear bomb. The United States might be able to buy more time by adopting a neutral policy toward Iran's pursuit of a peaceful nuclear program. Iran would still have the responsibility to cooperate with the IAEA to ensure that its nuclear program is peaceful.

Sanctioning and alienating a "bad guy" can make us feel strong and effective. But so far in our dealing with Iran, threats that have attacked respect and security have spurred the growth of its nuclear program. Military attacks against Iran's nuclear facilities might delay development of an Iranian nuclear bomb by months or even a couple of years. But more likely, any use of force would stimulate and rationalize an Iranian decision to make nuclear weapons.

Taking some pressure off the Iranian nuclear issue could create opportunities for the United States to have meaningful dialogue with Iran and other countries about important regional security problems. These include creating stability in Iraq, defusing tensions in Lebanon and addressing broader nuclear policies in the Middle East.

Numerous Arab states have expressed interest in developing nuclear programs, and Israel's nuclear arsenal continues to complicate resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. Acknowledging Iran's need for respect and security would relieve real and perceived pressures on Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

Charles D. Ferguson is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His e-mail is

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