Accessibility links

Iran: Nuclear Crisis Renews Debate Over Whether U.S. Should Engage Tehran

  • Charles Recknagel

As the 31 October deadline approaches for Tehran to answer all questions about its nuclear program, media attention is focusing on the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as the main forum for solving the debate over Iran's suspected efforts at weapons development. But in the United States there is vigorous debate over whether Washington can afford to leave the issue solely in the hands of the international arms control community. Given the divisiveness in the crisis over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, many U.S. policymakers say "no" -- and the search is on for other multilateral steps. In the second part of a two-part series, RFE/RL looks at how one idea, for Washington to engage Iran in tension-reducing dialogue, is attracting renewed attention.

Prague, 30 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Iran nuclear crisis is creating new debate in the United States over a decades-old and, at times, almost taboo subject. That is whether Washington can best address its security problems with the Islamic Republic by continuing to try to isolate Tehran or whether it should try to ease some of the tension through dialogue as well.

The debate has gathered strength as some policy experts in both Washington and London have suggested that the longtime history of mutual hostility between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic could be one factor motivating Tehran to seek nuclear weapons. The two states' hostility dates back a quarter-century to the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and -- in what was the most emotionally charged event for Americans -- the hostage-taking of U.S. diplomats, held for 444 days in Tehran.

Paul Wilkinson, a security expert at the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland, says that as the U.S. and Iran feud, both states keep finding new reasons to worry about each other.

"The Iranian leadership is not really of a mind to discontinue its nuclear development. They regard that as central to their own security. And when you think about it, you could rationalize that in terms of the 'axis of evil' speech made by the [U.S.] president. If you are already designated as part of the axis of evil, you become worried that you may be one of the next on the target list and then what you worry about is if we don't have this capability we become an easier target," Wilkinson said.

U.S. President George W. Bush branded Iran part of an axis of evil along with deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea based on evidence all three states had programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. U.S. officials also warned that the three states -- all hostile to Washington -- might transfer their weapons technology to international terrorist networks eager to emulate the 11 September attacks on America.

But as public concern in the West has mounted over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programs, some analysts are arguing that the best way out of the crisis may not be more cycles of threatening talk from Washington and Tehran but efforts to reduce tensions instead. As an example of how to do that, some U.S. experts are urging Washington to explore the approach taken by its European allies, which long ago ended their early efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic, established commercial and diplomatic relations, and sought to use those ties to modify Tehran's behavior through negotiation.

The European states notably used their trade relations as a lever to win an Iranian pledge last week to allow more intrusive UN monitoring of its nuclear sites. That pledge, made to the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany, has partly eased the current showdown between Iran and the IAEA, which has set tomorrow as the deadline for Tehran to fully cooperate with international efforts to ensure it only has a peaceful nuclear energy program.

George Perkovich, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., says that if the U.S. wants a peaceful end to the nuclear crisis, Washington must not only cut off Iran's supplies of nuclear weapons technology, it also must seek to diminish Tehran's perceived need for such know-how. And the ways to do that, he says, can best be explored through direct dialogue.

"One of the great mysteries, or the important strategic questions, that has to be resolved is the following: are the people who make ultimate decisions in Iran absolutely determined to get nuclear weapons, or not? And we really don't know the answer to that question. If they are absolutely determined, then there is very little that you can do other than change who those leaders are or else deter them with your own force," Perkovich said.

He continues, "If the leaders in Iran have not finally decided that they absolutely have to have nuclear weapons, then it would be possible to explore with them what are the conditions which would have to be created in your neighborhood that would make you decide you don't have to have nuclear weapons. And we haven't had that conversation with them, so we are all operating in a vacuum."

The analyst says U.S.-Iran talks could involve Iran's Gulf neighbors and lead to new regional security arrangements that reduce Tehran's reasons to feel threatened. He says that if Iran abandoned any nuclear weapons hopes, the U.S. might in turn reduce its troop presence in the Gulf and view Iran less as a pariah than as an exemplar of a state ready to give up weapons of mass destruction capabilities in the interest of stability.

But even as talk of reassessing U.S. policy toward Iran continues, few observers feel it would be easy for Washington to now try to engage Tehran in negotiations.

The two states are far apart on a variety of issues that, to date, have spoiled periodic overtures toward reevaluating their relations. Washington has often conditioned talks on Tehran first giving up its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, stopping support for terrorist organizations (notably Lebanon's Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups), and ending its refusal to back the Mideast peace process or recognize Israel's right to exist. Tehran has also set conditions, including that the U.S. lift its unilateral sanctions and resolve the status of remaining frozen Iranian assets.

The U.S.-led war on terror has brought some secret talks between the two sides to reduce tensions over Afghanistan and Iraq but it also has added new points of contention, including U.S. charges that Tehran is sheltering members of Al-Qaeda. A suggestion earlier this week by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage -- that Washington was prepared to resume limited contacts with the Iranian government but that relations would not improve until Tehran shares intelligence on Al-Qaeda -- underlined the difficulty of getting past such preconditions. An Iranian government spokesman rebuffed Armitage's feeler by saying "you cannot threaten from one side and freeze assets from the other side; we need to see America's practical steps."

That makes it an open question as to whether the coming months will bring more suggestions of talks from either side or, should they begin, whether they would advance very far.

Previous overtures from Iranian reformers have ended in Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruling out any negotiations with Washington as a sign of weakness. And Washington has signaled that it sees a regime change in Tehran as the best way to solve the two countries' differences. Those are formidable discouragements to either side to change its traditional policies, despite what may become mounting calls for both to do so.