Prague, 21 July 2004 -- Issues related to Iran have become so urgent that the United States has little choice but to engage the current government in Tehran, rather than wait for its fall.
That's the idea behind a new report issued this week by the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based policy institute.
The recommendations of the study, led in part by former White House national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, directly contradict a quarter-century of U.S. policy toward Iran.
They come as Washington considers ways to sanctions Iran for alleged violations in its nuclear program and probes possible Iranian links to the Al-Qaeda militants who launched devastating suicide attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.
Presenting the study in Washington, Brzezinski said the United States -- which has no formal relations with the Islamic Republic -- would be better served by increasing ties with Iran.
"Unless one wishes to stand up and advocate to do in Iran what we did in Iraq -- entirely on our own, without international support -- then one has to ask: What is also a more effective way of mobilizing international support?" Brzezinski said. "I think the policy we are advocating actually increases the likelihood that others would then be more cooperative."
The study argues for selectively engaging Iran on the most important issues and for Washington to use more "carrots" than "sticks" as it seeks concessions from Tehran.
"Unless one wishes to stand up and advocate to do in Iran what we did in Iraq -- entirely on our own, without international support -- then one has to ask: What is also a more effective way of mobilizing international support?" -- former White House national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski
George Perkovich, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Democracy in Washington, said he agrees with the study's conclusions.
Perkovich told RFE/RL that while some people believed that defeating Saddam Hussein would facilitate regime change in Tehran, the Iraq war has actually weakened Washington's position regarding Iran.
"What's happened is the U.S. has gotten bogged down in Iraq; it's very difficult," Perkovich said. "And so the Iranian bad guys look at it and say, 'If we think the Americans are going to come after us, we'll kill a lot of Americans in Iraq. We'll make Iraq such a mess for the Americans, they'll never leave in order to then come to Iran.' And so we worry that Iran has that capacity. They haven't exercised it, but they have this capacity to put people into Iraq, to really make the fight tough for the U.S. And it's one of the reasons why we have to cooperate with Iran to make sure that doesn't happen."
The Bush administration, however, said this week that it has already tried to talk to Iran. But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said little has come of the talks.
Undersecretary of State John Bolton added in a speech in Seoul yesterday that it is up to Iran to make the "strategic decision" to abandon its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Bolton cited the recent case of Libya as an example of a former pariah welcomed back into the fold after renouncing its weapons: "The example for Iran or North Korea is underlined by what Libya actually did. So this is not a hypothetical situation. This is a real-world example of how changed behavior on the part of a rogue state seeking weapons of mass destruction can result in changed behavior by others."
U.S. officials say Bolton consulted with British leaders in London in mid-July on when to possibly refer Iran's suspected nuclear arms program to the United Nations -- a sign U.S. patience with Tehran may be wearing thin.
The United States accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear arms -- which Iran denies -- and of failing to fully disclose its atomic programs to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Vienna-based watchdog agency could refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council, which in turn could impose sanctions on Iran.
Iran in October struck an agreement with France, Britain, and Germany to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. But Iran never fully suspended the program and recently said it would resume the production, assembly, and testing of enrichment centrifuges.
Some experts say tough economic sanctions could actually work to convince Iran to abandon or slow its nuclear program. The problem, said Perkovich, is that Washington is unlikely to win Security Council support for sanctions:
"What we're suggesting, though, is not a public threat of sanctions, but at least to get the European Union, in particular, to look farther ahead and say, 'Look, if Iran actually did develop nuclear weapons, the consequences for that are really, really bad, especially for Europe.' And so, in order to prevent that, it's important now [for the Europeans] to privately communicate to Iranian leaders, 'Look, this is such a big deal that we are prepared to support sanctions if it turns out badly and you crash forward to get nuclear weapons,'" Perkovich said.
Hawks in Washington and Israel, meanwhile, suggest that Iran's program could be halted through a preemptive strike on its nuclear facilities, similar to Israel's attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.
But Bush administration officials have ruled out a military option on Iran. Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington say it couldn't work, simply because the location of many of Iran's suspected nuclear facilities are unknown.
Alterman said the United States and Israel would also be wary of the Iranian response to such an attack: "The second problem is that the Iranians have their fingers in all kinds of groups -- both on the borders of Israel and Lebanon and elsewhere and also in the Palestinian areas -- who could make life very, very unpleasant for Israelis. And I think the Israelis are going to seek not to antagonize, not to come to a real confrontation with Iranians, for fear that the Iranians would then attack Israeli civilians. And the benefit is not as great as the cost that the Israelis would have to bear as a consequence."
Alterman also said he believes the United States should try pursuing selective dialogue with Iran. Regardless, he said, stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons will not be easy.
"People who know a lot more about proliferation than I do say that over time, they assume that Iran will become a nuclear power. When that will be, what kind of government will be in power in Iran, and what the reaction of the region will be, is very, very unclear," Alterman said. "But the people in the proliferation community, who look at this all the time, say that they see the most likely destination being Iran having nuclear weapons."