Nevertheless, Obama shouldn’t give up on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons—not because it’s Iran, but because the principle of non-proliferation should apply universally. No nation should acquire nuclear weapons, and those that have them should work toward eliminating them.
Obama accomplished the first and most constructive thing he could do as a start: he opened a dialogue with Iran again, more directly than any American president has since 1979. He changed the tone. He raised the level of respect. He treated Iran as an equal among nations—as he should.
Next, the following steps should be taken to engage Iran, diminish its paranoia and improve its standing in the world:
- Restore diplomatic relations. The U.S.-Iran break, dating back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution (and, more particularly, the Iranian hostage crisis), is turning into a pseudo-cold war schism as outdated and pointless as the Cuban-American rift began under John Kennedy. Silence, ostracism and shunning games don’t work. Diplomacy does. Restore diplomatic links, even if, for starters, the United States exchange diplomatic “missions” rather than embassies.
- Involve Iran in Afghanistan, where Western and Iranian interests converge. Afghanistan’s large Hazara, or Shiite, minority, looks to Iran for protection. Iran opposes the Taliban. Iran has deep intelligence links and tactical advantages in Afghanistan. The United States used those advantages in 2001 to defeat the Taliban, but then turned against Iran anyway. By engaging Iran in Afghanistan as a back-channel ally, Iran and the United States can build trust, attain shared goals and reduce mutual tensions.
- Respect Iran’s interests in Iraq. Iraq, remember, attacked Iran in 1980. That Saddam Hussein is gone is besides the point. Arab history doesn’t go away, and Iran—not an Arab country—is leery of its Arab neighbors. That’s why it intends to keep its fingers on the pulse, and triggers, of Iraqi politics. Excluding Iran would only provoke a backlash. Including it would build trust and diminish antagonisms.
- Most importantly, talk to Iran directly, without pre-conditions, on the nuclear issue. Lay it out: What does Iran want? If it’s peaceful nuclear technology, as many Middle Eastern nations do, then find a way to be part of that development. If it’s nuclear weapons, find a way to dissuade Iran from acquiring them. They’re prohibitively expensive. But they’re immensely rewarding as a status symbol. How can the United States and the West compensate for either, if it’s to keep Iran from acquiring nukes? (For that relationship to develop, Obama may be wise to wait out the presidential election scheduled for June 12, 2009, in Iran.)
The Specifics of Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Option
It’s time to end American and western confusion on dealing with Iran. Counter-acting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s brash belligerence with more polite sounding but equally belligerent responses, such as punitive actions and ever-escalating but empty threats of sanctions, isn’t working. It makes Iran look stronger without Iran having to expend an iota of capital, and it makes the West look dumb. If Obama wants to talk, that’s what he should do. No threats, no conditions.
Nor can Iran be expected to stop all development on nuclear technology, centrifuge development included. It can can expected to turn its centrifuges into bargaining chips. The principle in play here is that the West should stop assuming it can impose any decision or course of action on Iran. It can only sway. So it might as well sway Iran’s direction.
Economically and politically, Iran has plenty to gain from abandoning its nuclear ambitions: new markets for its oil and gas, desperately needed investment in the decrepit Iranian economy, more legitimized regional power. But the West must provide those economic and political incentives without seeing in them a zero-sum game, where Iran’s gains are, say, Israel’s losses.
Needless to say, bombing Iran should not be an option.
What About Ahmadinejad?
The key point to remember about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is that while he is Iran’s president, he is not Iran’s “decider.” “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei is. Ahmadinejad would not have his hands on any triggers. Only Khamenei would, and Khamenei has shown himself to be both more measured politically and less showy rhetorically than Ahmadinejad. But Iran’s revolution depends on a certain amount of bluster to keep the revolutionary spirit alive. That’s what Ahmadinejad provides.
Ahmadinejad, in other words, is a foil for an Iranian paradox: what Iranians say for public consumption isn’t necessarily what they believe. As the Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan observes in How to Win a Cosmic War (Random House), “I have watched Muslims chant ‘Death to America!’ on the streets of Tehran, then privately beg me to help them get a visa to the United States.”
What About Iran’s threat to bomb Israel? What of Iran’s Ties to Hamas and Hezbollah?
Fine questions all, but the questions don’t belong in the same league as Obama’s agenda with Iran, because they’re more rhetorically sensational than politically valid questions. So they should be dealt with separately.
As such, read “Is Iran a Threat to Israel?”