In the run-up to the Iraq War, the Bush Administration proved remarkably adept at the art of "diplomacy" for war. Now the White House seems to be using the same game plan for Iran. It is exaggerating the threat Iran poses, is making demands that go beyond Iran's treaty obligations and is now pushing for a UN Security Council resolution that would impose sanctions and other punishments. The Administration has created a premature crisis that is distracting public attention from Iraq but is also stiffening Iran's defiance and maybe even accelerating its efforts to enrich uranium.
The White House strategy so far has played into the hands of Iran's radical regime. It is not clear how much power President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually has. But the Administration's threats against Iran--including talk of "regime change" and its refusal to rule out using tactical nuclear weapons--have helped Ahmadinejad distract attention from his broken economic promises and have bolstered his sagging popularity. The leaders of both countries seem to be pursuing, for their own political and ideological purposes, a reckless game of chicken that could end in disaster not only for the two countries but for the Persian Gulf region, perhaps even the world.
Some Democrats may be tempted to run to the right of Bush on the issue of Iran's nuclear program. If they do, they will only deepen the unfolding crisis and make it hard to resist a future White House request to Congress for the authority to use force. The better strategy would be to return the question of Iran's nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to engage Iran in regional diplomacy to prevent a widening civil war in Iraq. Engaging Iran would not be an endorsement of its regime but would appeal to its interest in bringing more stability to the region. There are three reasons for pursuing this diplomatic approach.
First, Iran's nuclear program does not pose a threat to US security or international peace and is not likely to for many years. This month Iran announced that it had successfully enriched uranium to 4.8 percent. But enrichment to 90 percent is required for nuclear-weapons-grade material, and Tehran's announcement did nothing to alter independent expert opinion that Iran is five to ten years from being able to build a weapon, a view shared by US intelligence agencies. So there is plenty of time for the IAEA to gauge Iran's compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran may very well have nuclear weapons ambitions--or the ambition to acquire the capability to build such weapons--but at this point neither the United States nor the international community has solid evidence of a covert weapons program. Indeed, IAEA inspections so far have supported Iran's argument that it does not (although the latest IAEA report draws attention to Iran's refusal to answer some questions). And without solid evidence, other important powers whose cooperation is needed, like China and Russia, will not support Washington's call for sanctions or endorse its coercive diplomacy.
Second, the continued use of coercive diplomacy to curtail Iran's nuclear program will only strengthen its hard-line regime and solidify Iranian public opinion behind a national goal of obtaining nuclear weapons. Washington should realize that threatening Iran with sanctions and military attacks strengthens Iranian hard-liners' case for nuclear weapons. It also allows them to tap into a deep national reservoir of historical grievances against the United States and the West. American efforts to deny Iran what neighboring countries, including Israel and Pakistan, already have can be portrayed as yet another injustice at the hands of Washington. Thus, the more the United States pushes Iran to stop uranium enrichment, the more it is likely to turn the nuclear issue into a cause that's all about defending the country's sovereignty and dignity. In contrast, involving Iran in a regional discussion about stabilizing the Persian Gulf could go a long way toward satisfying Iran's pride and diminishing its appetite for nukes.
Finally, Iran is poised to complicate the already difficult position of US forces in Iraq. Iran has as much or more influence with the main Shiite factions in the Iraqi government as Washington, and Shiite support for a national unity government will be critical to preventing a widening civil war. American forces are highly vulnerable to Iranian-sponsored guerrilla warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, Iran has good reason to believe it could prevail in an extended conflict by encouraging Shiite attacks on US forces and by driving up oil prices to well over $100 a barrel by threatening shipping and oil facilities in the Persian Gulf. It makes no sense for the Administration to threaten Iran when we're so vulnerable to Iranian retaliation. It is simply unrealistic to expect Iran not to take advantage of our vulnerabilities when Washington is pushing sanctions and apparently preparing for regime change and military strikes.
Good statecraft is about creating the conditions that expand the choices for peace and security. By hardening Iran's national resolve around its nuclear program, the Administration is narrowing the choices to war or capitulation. Saner voices must offer an alternative to the Administration's endgame: an alternative that recognizes that the international community has time to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions and also that we must address legitimate Iranian security concerns, taking seriously the idea of a region free of all weapons of mass destruction. This larger vision would require the United States to be willing to give up its own nuclear option, and thus won't be realized overnight. But this is the kind of diplomacy we should demand of our national leaders, not diplomacy that leads to more war and instability.