Only one way to deal with Tehran

By Quentin Peel

Financial Times

Published: February 2 2006

The most revealing statement made by Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, on her visit to London this week was about the resounding victory of Hamas, the militant Islamist movement, in the Palestinian elections. “Certainly I have asked why nobody saw it coming,” she told journalists on her aeroplane. “I hope we will take a hard look. It does say something about perhaps not having had a good enough pulse on the Palestinian population.”

That failure of intelligence may not prove to be quite as devastating or costly as the failure in Iraq, although many Israelis fear otherwise. But it is deeply embarrassing to advocates in the White House of a policy of democracy-first, conflict-resolution later. For too long, they have allowed their information to be driven by both ideology and Israeli intelligence sources.

The same danger looms today over US policy – or rather, non-policy – towards Iran. If that goes wrong, and leads to the same inexorable spiral of sanctions and military action, it could prove far more costly than the war in Iraq. It would only serve to justify any ambitions that the Tehran regime may have to acquire nuclear weapons and reinforce the power of the mullahs who dominate it. This week’s agreement to report Iran’s nuclear activities to the United Nations Security Council, without any clear strategy about what to do next, is a dangerous step in the dark.

In his address to Congress, President George W. Bush sought to make a clear distinction between the activities of the Tehran regime – “a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people” – and the “citizens of Iran”. To the former he said America would “rally the world” to stop it acquiring nuclear weapons. To the latter, he declared: “America respects you and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom.” That was more than a hint that regime change one way or another remains on the US agenda.

Yet in all the debate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, far too little attention is paid to why the country should want to embark on such a confrontational path, and therefore how it might best be persuaded not to. Nor is there much awareness (especially in the US) that the policy is popular.

“While a vast majority of Iranians despise the hardliners and wish for their downfall, they support the nuclear programme,” says Shirin Ebadi, the pro-democracy activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. “Aside from being economically justified, it has become a cause of national pride of an old nation with a glorious history. No Iranian government, regardless of its ideology or democratic credentials, would dare to stop the programme.”

More important still is Iran’s abiding sense of insecurity. It has nuclear-armed states to the east (Pakistan and India), north (Russia) and west (Israel). It was forced into a devastating eight-year war with Iraq that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Above all it feels threatened by America. “What is the only country in the world, apart from Canada, that has the US on every border?” they like to ask in Tehran. “Iran,” comes the wry reply.

Because Washington refuses to talk to Tehran, that vital security question is simply never addressed. Britain, France and Germany, the EU-3 group which sought to negotiate a diplomatic solution, cannot offer any reassurance that Mr Bush is not bent on overthrowing the government. They can only buy time for the US to get engaged. Yet Washington shows no signs of relaxing its refusal to talk to Tehran, or dropping its regular hints of regime change.

Israel is the one country that feels directly threatened by a nuclear Iran, but Israeli leaders are desperate not to be the ones to take unilateral action to bomb suspected facilities, even if they could. They know they would face renewed international isolation, even if there were sympathy in Washington.

Most analysts doubt that military action could do more than delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Sir Michael Quinlan, former permanent undersecretary at the UK defence ministry, told the Herzliya conference outside Tel Aviv as much last week. “To be lastingly effective, such action might well have to approach the Iraq pattern of imposed regime change,” he said. But given the far greater size and national cohesiveness of Iran, it would be a much tougher job, he said.

He also suggested that if Iran used nuclear weapons against its regional neighbours it would be committing “regime suicide”. Even with a president such as Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad, capable of saying that Israel should be “wiped off the map”, he suggested the likelihood of such an action would be “enormously low”.

The problem in dealing with Iran is that threats no longer seem to have much effect. Economic sanctions that might hit Iranian oil production seem very unlikely in present market conditions. China, Russia and India are all opposed to such sanctions because of their own commercial and energy ties to Tehran. So are many European Union countries, and the Iranian regime knows it well.

The reality is that the Iranian regime does not believe the big stick is going to be used. So the only answer lies in persuading the government that it has no need of nuclear weapons, because it no longer faces a threat of regime change by force. Only the US is capable of giving such a guarantee.