“All options are on the table,” says President George W. Bush when asked about press reports that the Pentagon is drawing up plans to bomb Iran to derail the nuclear research program there. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shoots back: “The Iranian nation will respond to any blow with double the intensity.” Even if Bush’s saber rattling is merely a psychological ploy, and even if the Iranians are also just blowing smoke, the danger is that the cycle of threat and counter-threat could spin out of control.
Prominent dissenting voices, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state during Bush’s first term, are calling for the US and Iran to stop this rhetorical tit for tat in the media and sit down face to face. They are right: direct negotiations are the realistic choice for defusing the mounting crisis over Iran’s enrichment of uranium, a process which could in time allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s intransigence, in the face of demands that it cease enrichment, stems from the conservative ruling elite’s belief that the US is determined to foment regime change. They are convinced that their very survival depends on not buckling under pressure until they get either direct security assurances from the US or obtain some form of deterrence.
Bush deepened this siege mentality when he labeled Iran as part of an “axis of evil” in 2002. At the time, the reformist former president Mohammad Khatami and his followers decided that Iran faced an existential national threat that could not be ignored, and so they allowed hardline conservatives to take the lead on the nuclear issue. Now, after the US invaded one member of the “axis of evil,” strategists in Tehran look around and see US-allied states, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Turkey, on two sides, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on a third, as well as nuclear-armed Israel over the horizon.
There is little enthusiasm among US allies for sanctions on Iran, let alone military strikes, partly because there is still no proof that Iran’s nuclear research program is aimed at acquiring a weapon. Additionally, they know that despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s despicable questioning of the Holocaust and other fulminations against Israel, Iran poses no great offensive threat to regional or international peace and security. Iran’s military is poorly trained and its equipment is obsolete. If Iran lobbed a missile at Israel, it would guarantee its own devastation in response.
Other states on the Security Council also suspect that the Bush administration’s obsession with the Iranian nuclear program has obfuscated its real motives. By targeting Iran with sanctions or worse, the administration hopes to eliminate another potential challenge to US hegemony in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. US geostrategic goals undermine the effort to build consensus at the Security Council, despite international misgivings about the consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear power.
Skepticism about Iran’s insistence that its program is peaceful is warranted, since Iran has not been fully transparent about the scope of its research. Should Iran develop a nuclear weapon, its apprehensive neighbors, primarily Saudi Arabia and Turkey, might follow suit. Rigorous International Atomic Energy Agency inspections should continue.
In the meantime, Iran is far less inflexible in its nuclear plans than its rhetoric may lead us to believe. The conservatives in Iran, led by the hardline Supreme Leader Khamenei, have sent numerous signals regarding their willingness to negotiate with the US. They want recognition of the Islamic Republic, security guarantees and negotiations on equal terms on outstanding US-Iranian disputes. The ideologues of the Bush administration refuse such talks, indicating that they want nothing less than the demise of the regime. But it is precisely that demand for total capitulation by the Iranian regime that hardens their determination not to concede anything in uranium enrichment.
The only way to deter Iran from its nuclear path is for the US to step back from its brinkmanship and begin full normalization of diplomatic relations.