Holding the Government Accountable

A Transatlantic Approach to Iran

by Michael Donovan, Ph.D.

In August 2004, Washington watched with skepticism as European diplomats again tried to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is agreement that a nuclear armed Iran would be a disaster for the region and possibly a last gasp for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But American and European efforts have little in common beyond a failure to deliver concrete results. The time has come to develop a coordinated transatlantic strategy for ending Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapons option. Time is running out.

Last year, it looked like the European and American good cop/bad cop approaches to the problem were yielding results. While the administration 0f U.S. President George W. Bush rattled its sabers, diplomats from Britain, France, and Germany, adopted a “soft power” approach that included guarantees to peaceful nuclear technology and the promise of further economic ties. In October 2003, Tehran opted for Europe’s carrot rather than the American stick, agreeing to suspend the enrichment activities and accept more robust inspections of its nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It appeared that Iran was taking a step back from the nuclear threshold, giving up its legitimate right under the NPT to enrich the nuclear material needed to run reactors…or make weapons.

But in June 2004, the IAEA reported that serious concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities persist. According to the agency, Iran had not provided the “full, timely and proactive” disclosure of its nuclear activities. Traces of enriched uranium were found on some equipment, raising concerns that Iran was closer to a full nuclear fuel cycle than anyone suspected. (This material was later confirmed to be trace contaminates in the equipment imported from abroad.) Angered by the rebuke, Tehran signaled that it will resume construction of the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium, a decision that could bring it into striking distance of a nuclear weapons option.

Failure of the 2003 agreement is not Europe’s alone to bear. Tehran has been adept at using the Bush administration’s shrill “axis of evil” rhetoric to justify its nuclear ambitions, while exploiting Europe’s reluctance to get tough in order to buy the time to fulfill them. Both the U.S. and European approaches thus have failed to produce results.

Forging a transatlantic front on Iran will require each side to modify its policies considerably. Washington’s focus on unilateral containment and regime change in Tehran increasingly isolates the United States instead. Given events in Iraq, threats in this regard have lost much of their potency. Advocates of regime change need to accept that the ongoing competition between Iranian reformists and conservatives must end with an Iranian solution. This, in turn, will also allow for an international approach to Iran’s nuclear program that is not tainted by the spent currency of preemption.

Washington will also have to acquiesce in Iranian access to civilian nuclear technology, albeit with appropriate safeguards. Tehran claims with some justification that the United States has pursued a policy of technological denial, including peaceful technology, for 20 years. Iranians of all political stripes believe that access to equipment and processes guaranteed under the provisions of the NPT, and ostensibly for peaceful purposes, should not be held hostage to the whims of a hostile American government. The issue is one of national honor. If the United States does not quickly drop its blanket objection to Iran acquiring any modern nuclear technology, the issue my soon become nonnegotiable from the Iranian point of view.

As the region’s premier military power, only the United States can address the sense of strategic vulnerability that drives Iran’s nuclear breakout strategy. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq has essentially completed the U.S. military encirclement of Iran. Accepting that Iran has legitimate security concerns in these places would be a good first step. Eventually, Iran will need to be integrated as a full member into a regional security framework. But, as is the case with North Korea, until the United States sits down at the table, a lasting solution will remain elusive.

Europe has embraced the engagement of Iran despite insufficient evidence that it encourages moderate behavior. European capitals need to move beyond the economic self interest that motivates their Iran policies and take a tougher line on a range of issues, from Tehran’s support of terrorism to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Engagement cannot be an end in itself. Tehran’s decision to continue construction of centrifuges suggests that European “soft power” alone is insufficient for dealing with Iran’s recalcitrant conservatives.

Two decades of gradually expanding economic ties has given the European Union some leverage in Tehran. But it has also raised the stakes for European countries accustomed to doing business in Iran without fear of American competition. Leverage, it seems, goes both ways. The promise of improved relations with Iran in return for responsible behavior has been the traditional approach, but it simply has proven not enough. European capitals must be willing to significantly downgrade political and economic ties with Tehran when radical polices hold sway.

International opinion on Iran coalesced in the wake of the IAEA’s June report, creating an opportunity for cooperation on this issue. If Iran continues to stall in the face of new cooperation among the rest of the world, Washington will find it easier to argue its case for sanctions. Closing the gap between American and European approaches to Tehran will also help to heal the diplomatic wounds inflicted during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and help to forge a new counter proliferation consensus among the allies.

Few other options remain. When speaking candidly, American military officials admit that there are no attractive military options for derailing Iran’s nuclear program or its clerical regime. Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is widely dispersed, some of it is hardened, and much of it is now indigenous. A military strike like the Israeli strike on Osiraq in 1982 is unlikely to significantly undercut Iran nuclear ambitions, and may instead encourage them. Likewise, the Osiraq strike stretched the capabilities of Israel’s Air Force. Iran may be beyond the reach. Meanwhile, Iraq can not be resurrected as a bulwark against Iran without alarming its neighbors and old adversaries. And while the degree to which American fortunes in Iraq are a hostage of Iran’s influence is not clear, it should not be underestimated. Iran and the United States will have to coexist in a region both find dangerous.

Even if there was a viable military option, such action would alienate the Iranian population, which is largely moderate and surprisingly pro-American. One poll suggests that 70 percent of Iranians have a favorable opinion of the United States. These are rare commodities in the Middle East, but they can be cultivated when cooler heads prevail. Iran is likely to demographically and economically dominate the Persian Gulf region in coming years. Iran’s confrontational clerics will not be around forever. The United States could use some friends in the region once the ayatollahs are gone.