Is the world safer now?

Alan Isenberg writes for Newsweek International. He recently completed a fellowship at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation that focused on Iran's nuclear program.

OVER THE last four years, and especially under radical new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran has done its best to live up to President Bush’s 2002 declaration that it is part of an “axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”

Yet as Iran’s leaders make incendiary statements and threaten to fully resume their nuclear program, the United States and Europe have done little to effectively defuse the threat.

The tired transatlantic discourse has gone roughly as follows: Those who favor aggressive action against the Iranian regime for its nuclear aspirations point to Ahmadinejad’s crackdown on civil society, his purge of moderate diplomats from Tehran’s embassies around the world and his recent statement that Israel should be wiped off the map. They also note with concern that Iran covered up its nuclear program for nearly two decades and that it has been disingenuous in its commitments to suspend this effort since it came to light in 2003.

Those who oppose a harsh response have an equally long litany of defenses. Bombing nuclear sites or imposing harsh sanctions, they say, will only rally the Iranian population around the mullahs, further postponing democratic reform or revolution. Targeting nuclear sites is difficult because of their diffuse and secret locations. Besides, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has kept Ahmadinejad on a tight leash regarding the nuclear program and has explicitly said that Iran would not attack Israel.


This debate has pushed the West to a point of strategic weakness. To contend with Iran, the United States favors an awkward assortment of tactics: lukewarm endorsements for the European negotiations; intermittent, cryptic threats of military action; overbroad sanctions; and the diplomatic silent treatment. The European talks, for their part, lack clear momentum and teeth; European foreign ministers have been refreshingly strong in their rhetoric but without results. Most important, the United States and Europe have failed to bring aboard Russia and China, whose vetoes in the U.N. Security Council could obviate any meaningful multilateral response.

Tehran has masterfully exploited the limits of the U.S. and European approaches, pressing ahead with elements of its nuclear program, seeking strategic allies whom it can tempt with its vast oil and gas resources and further suppressing democracy at home.

For all Iran’s claims that it wants a nuclear program for energy alone, its leaders seem interested only in results allowing it to enrich its own uranium -- a dangerous proposition given the mullahs’ history of deceit and radical government. In a testament to its true intentions, Tehran has been cool to Russia’s recent proposal, backed by the United States and Europe, to allow the enrichment of Iranian nuclear fuel exclusively on Russian soil.

European Union-Iran talks remain stalled, and a U.N. Security Council referral seems nigh even if they resume. Rather than worrying about Iran’s behavior alone -- the regime may well remain undeterred at this point -- the West should expand its strategic response in the following ways:

* As their first diplomatic priority, the United States and Europe should work to line up commitments of greater support from Beijing and Moscow, should Iran’s nuclear stance grow more belligerent. Russia is still dealing dangerously with Tehran (recently agreeing to a $1-billion arms deal), and China cares more about its oil and gas dependency than an Iranian nuclear power program, but neither wants to see Iran get the bomb. Moreover, Russia and China have the power of the purse over Iran. Sanctions from these states could serve as a real deterrent. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin could give Tehran serious pause by hinting that the fate of Russian-Iranian military cooperation hinges on Iran agreeing to Moscow’s enrichment proposal.

* Next, the United States must engage more meaningfully with Iran. Although Ahmadinejad is a zealot of the highest order, Iran and the United States have mutually important interests that they can discuss without complete detente. A solid first step is the Bush administration’s decision to allow Zalmay Khalilzad, the highly capable U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to begin talks with senior Iranians about issues related to Iraq. Iran has publicly rebuffed this attempt. More offers of engagement from the United States, even if sharply rejected by Tehran, would show everyday Iranians that it is their leaders -- not the U.S. -- who are deepening their isolation and exacerbating their economic woes.

Now is also the time to relax visa requirements so that more Iranian students can study in the U.S. Exposure to American culture is the best way to dispel the vicious myths Tehran propagates about the “Great Satan.”

* Europe, for its part, should be intolerant of any further Iranian stunts should negotiations resume. If Iran walks away from talks again or restarts uranium enrichment, the issue should automatically go to the Security Council without regard for Iran’s threatened response. That said, Europe should also be able to show Tehran that it can persuade the United States to offer major incentives, such as the repeal of sanctions, in exchange for Iranian compliance.


Iran today indeed poses a problem with no easy solution. But managing it through proactive policies would be a vast improvement.