Published: December 2 2004
Iran has outmanoeuvred the US diplomatically over its nuclear programme, frustrating the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration. But this could force Washington to begin dealing with Iran on a rational and pragmatic basis.
The thrust of US efforts since the 2002 State of the Union speech that identified Iran as part of an "Axis of Evil" has been to promote regime change. Enthusiasts for this position have used the nuclear issue as their chief justification.
Iran has now effectively removed this pretext. After weeks of brinkmanship, Tehran formally agreed to a voluntary suspension of nuclear fuel enhancement, adding to an earlier agreement to a return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. This last-minute accord, negotiated exclusively with European powers, was a reproof to the US, as it met all concerns over the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme under existing IAEA protocols.
Iran has stymied US initiatives to bring it before the IAEA board, frustrating American hopes of triggering UN Security Council sanctions. The accord also undercuts the case for military intervention or for a broader economic boycott against the Islamic republic. But Reuters reported on November 29 that Jackie Sanders, the US envoy, had told the IAEA that Washington reserved the right to go it alone.
Getting the Bush administration to engage with Iran remains a hard sell. It is purging officials who opposed aggressive Middle East strategies and replacing them with hardliners. Colin Powell, a moderating influence, is being replaced as secretary of state by Condoleezza Rice, often a cheerleader to the hawks.
However, the hardliners have no more justification for aggressive action against Iran. Accusations about Iran's nuclear weapon's programme have little basis in verifiable fact. The weak US intelligence on Iran is not enhanced by repeating rumours about the country's nuclear activities provided by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an opposition group.
Washington has also seriously underestimated Iran's abilities in international dealings. The Iranians are playing a traditional game of 'a'ziyat with the US - a word meaning in Persian "systematic annoyance." The Iranians press their case until administration hawks start issuing threats; then the Iranians pull back to a position where they are unassailable, leaving the Americans looking foolish, fulminating darkly about Iranian "plots".
Military action has also been trumped. War gaming exercises have shown that the US cannot win in a confrontation with Iran. Arch-hawk Michael Ledeen, adviser to Karl Rove, George W. Bush's chief political strategist, has admitted as much in a recent article in The Australian in which he describes the "solution" to the Iranian problem as "militarily very daunting".
One solution already discredited is to support regime change from within. Iran's youthful population is well disposed towards the US, highly educated and longing for greater freedom. However, America's unfortunate past dealings with Iran mean that anyone or any group the US supports is immediately discredited.
Washington's perpetual vague threats of "regime change" in Iran have had unexpected consequences: an ever-closer tie between oil states and energy-hungry China has been accelerated, to the disadvantage of the US. China can be expected in the UN Security Council to thwart US initiatives viewed by its Middle Eastern allies as hegemonic or arrogant. In a sense, the harder America tries to force a resolution, the more it slips from Washington's control.
To engage Iran on nuclear proliferation, the US need not attack the entire regime. The US regularly and constructively deals with nations whose governments are oppressive. Opportunities for informal engagement abound. Removal of measures that block educational and cultural exchanges would be another important step. Enhancing trade in agricultural commodities by lifting the punitive duties on Iran's principal crop, pistachios, is a smart move.
Leaving the Iranian situation at an impasse, though, is a grave mistake. By failing to signal its desire to engage with Iran, the US remains in the world's eyes firmly in the grasp of "inveterate antipathies" against which sage minds, such as George Washington, have cautioned.
Without a change of strategy, the US is headed for yet another punishing quagmire.
William Beeman is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. Donald Weadon is an international lawyer in Washington DC