An offer that Iran cannot refuse

By Brent Scowcroft and Daniel Poneman

Financial Times

Published: March 9 2005 20:43

Last month, George W. Bush, US president, took steps to heal the trans-Atlantic breach, including reaffirming support for a strong Europe. While serious differences remain, these steps laid a foundation to repair a frayed relationship. Now Moscow has signed an important deal requiring Tehran to return to Russia all spent fuel produced in the Bushehr nuclear reactor. Together, these events create an opportunity to contain the Iranian nuclear threat.

For more than a decade, the US has urged Russia to refrain from dangerous nuclear exports to Iran. Russia has proceeded with construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor but in recent years has halted the kind of aid that would help Iran enrich uranium or separate plutonium. By refusing to send fresh fuel to Bushehr until Tehran agreed to give back all of the plutonium-laced spent fuel, Russia has denied Iran a pathway to nuclear weapons capability.

Blocking the other pathway - uranium enrichment - has been the focus of British, French and German diplomacy with Iran. Many in the US have doubted the "EU3's" fortitude in in the matter. But during Mr Bush's European trip, the EU3 leaders insisted that Iran must not obtain nuclear weapons.

Privately, Europeans say that American participation is critical to the success of their diplomatic initiative. American antipathy toward the Iranian regime has conveyed an implicit threat - regime change - but the US has been unwilling to back Europe's offer of incentives to Tehran should it verifiably abandon its dangerous nuclear activities. However, in Germany, Stephen Hadley, the US national security adviser, suggested that European ideas merit further reflection by Mr Bush; subsequent reports suggest this is occurring. That opens the possibility that the US might participate in providing Iran with incentives, perhaps in exchange for Europe's participating in coercion should diplomacy fail.

So the stage is set for a possible US-EU-Russian effort to reverse Iranian progress toward nuclear weapons.But how? From the days of the Shah to the present, Iran has harboured nuclear ambitions. However, Tehran's actions suggest that it is not indifferent to the threat of being hauled before the United Nations Security Council, or to the economic benefits of trade agreements with Europe and accession to the World Trade Organisation. This sensitivity reflects both pride and the Iranian government's recognition that it must do more to satisfy the aspirations of its burgeoning and underemployed population.

The Iranian government's fundamental goal appears to be self-preservation. If pursuing the bomb were to impair that aim, the mullahs might be prepared to modify their ambitions. That means that the international community may have significant leverage over Iran. Europe, Russia and the US should therefore back a comprehensive package that offers significant security and economic benefits for a verifiable Iranian commitment, at a minimum, to halt all activities that could enhance nuclear weapon capabilities. This would require abandonment of Iran's planned heavy water research reactor and its centrifuge programme. If it complies, it should be offered cradle-to-grave fuel services for any Iranian nuclear power plant in perpetuity, on attractive terms.

The coalition should make it clear that, if Iran refused such an offer, there would be no choice but to conclude that it was interested only in nuclear weapons and to act jointly to impose significant penalties. Indeed, the UN Security Council is likely to muster the political will to mount effective enforcement action in response to Iran's nuclear activities only after serious efforts at a diplomatic solution have been exhausted.

This solution offers something to everyone. The US will reduce the risks of Iranian action against its interests. Europe will increase trade and energy security. Russia will open the door to increased nuclear co-operation with the US, including the possibility of allowing it to earn revenues by providing storage services to US-originated spent fuel in Asia and elsewhere. Iran will increase its security and trade. And the world will avoid cascading proliferation in the Middle East.

But the approach requires seamless integration of positions among the governments concerned. If Europe only offers incentives and the US only threats, Iran is likely to conclude that it can continue to play one against the other, or that any deal will not stick.

If the US, Europe and Russia fail to join in an approach along these lines, it is likely that the world will face an Iranian government far closer to the acquisition of nuclear weapons than it is to its replacement by pacifists who eschew the nuclear option. That is an outcome that it is in the interests of all nations to avoid.

Brent Scowcroft was national security adviser to presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Daniel Poneman served on the National Security Council staff under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton