March 05, 2005

Washington v. Tehran

Dan Darling has one of the better essays I've seen on the Bush administration's still-very-much-in-its-infancy policy towards Iran. The key, I think, is that the White House doesn't want to take the blame if/when EU-Iranian negotiations falter, so it will probably put in an appearance, but it also doesn't trust Europe to follow through with sanctions and other punitive measures against Iran if/when talks do break down.

So the Bush administration's sudden willingness to negotiate may be nothing more than, as Dan put it, "a stalling tactic while we figure out our options."

Fair enough, and there are some very legitimate fears here. Let's say Iran signs a "grand bargain," and formally gives up its nukes and support for terrorism in exchange for economic goodies. The devils in the details of course—how can we verify all this?—but let's assume that's workable. Later on, then, say Iran violates the bargain and resumes nuclear production. Will European leaders of the future have the willpower to start levying additional sanctions, or will they be much too meek and afraid to rock the boat? I'd guess too meek and afraid, at least as things currently stand—if there's one thing we know about European leaders, they really prefer not to piss off those countries with whom they have plum business relations.

Then it's back to square one. At any rate, insta-pundits the world over have ripped through thousands of blank Word documents trying to figure out what Iran's incentives are in all of this, and how we can change them. But why don't people think about Europe's incentives? If European leaders really don't view Iran as "their problem"—which seems to be the overriding assumption here—why is that? Do they think that the U.S. will ultimately deal with Iran if things get really bad? If they do, why can't that change? Jacques Chirac, after all, seems to view Lebanon as largely his personal responsibility—partly because of his relationship with now-blown-to-bits PM Rafiq Hariri, and partly because of France's historical involvement in France, but maybe for other reasons too. Is there any way Europe can be enticed into viewing Iran the same way? I don't know.

One last thing. Here's a different and fairly radical policy option on Iran. First, punt on the nuclear issue. (Oh!) Then, make terrorism, human rights, and cooperation over Iraq the centerpiece of any "grand bargain" (or incremental bargaining) with Iran. Include security guarantees—maybe with Israel too—and tasty economic incentives, like WTO membership. And then see what happens. Several things here—I think that the United States will have much more leverage—and useful leverage—over the Tehran regime if we start in with the economic interdependence stuff now. The window is closing: Sooner or later China is going to start moving in with heavy investment and then Iran won't give two figs about whatever economic carrots we could dangle. That leverage, by the way, makes eventual regime change more probable. Second, I think a nuclear Iran would be highly unlikely to continue supporting al-Qaeda (Why would they? Once Iran goes nuclear, Al-Q isn't a useful security option any more, and Tehran runs the risk that the terrorists turn against their hosts).

But the counterarguments to this approach are long and quite serious.
-- Brad Plumer 6:54 PM || ||