Outside View: Iran can't be bought off

Bennett Ramberg
Published 12/15/2004

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- Can economics trump values? The European Community has placed a bet that they can. In a new round of negotiations France and Germany believe they can buy off Iran's ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons. If history is the judge, the tack is a chimera. Failure should prompt another course: challenge the values and their foundation.

Europe's quixotic aspirations go back to the fall of 2003. At the time, Iran's nuclear perfidy was evident to all. Multiple reports from the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency demonstrated conclusively that Tehran had spent years secretly acquiring the means to manufacture nuclear weapons ingredients in violation of its nonproliferation obligations. Washington took a hard line. It called upon the IAEA Board of Governors to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council for the application of sanctions.

Britain, France and Germany balked. The Europeans saw a chance not only to resolve the stalemate but -- in the case of Bonn and Paris -- to upstage Washington while generating economic benefits for themselves. The result: In October 2003, the three European powers sent their foreign ministers to Iran to offer economic, nuclear and political incentives. They believed that Iran could be bought.

At first blush, the EU-3 scored a coup. On Oct. 21, 2003, Iran agreed "to suspend all uranium enrichment and processing activities as defined by the IAEA." Headlines declared, "Iranian Deal a Victory for European Diplomacy." The adulation proved short-lived. Although it would not be until June 2004 when Tehran bolted from the agreement, the signs already were present on Oct. 22, 2003 when President Mohammad Khatami declared, "Iran will never give up this (enrichment) program."

When Iran's enrichment activities resumed in the summer of 2004, European pride would not allow failure. The EU-3 offered the mullahs the promise of more bountiful economic and nuclear carrots. Negotiations proved difficult. Iran was unwilling to cede uranium enrichment. By early November, the parties struck a new deal -- or so it appeared. Iran would "suspend" - again -- its enrichment activities. Europe would have additional time to put an effective economic incentive package together.

All that remained was the blessing of the IAEA Board of Governors. Back in Tehran, conservative factions rebelled. They called for the exclusion of 20 centrifuges. The European venture teetered. To overcome the mullah's bargaining ploy, the Board of Governors caved. It modified the standards applied to verification and agreed that the suspension was not legally binding. It also rebuffed Washington1s demands that Iranian violations serve as the tripwire for Security Council action.

Now resolution of Iran's nuclear challenge resides entirely in Europe's court. Unfortunately, a fundamental flaw infects the EU-3 strategy: Iran cannot be bought. Economic currencies do not buy political values. For the mullahs, one value dominates: preservation of the theocratic regime. Iran's leadership appears to believe that a nuclear weapons capacity promotes supporting values --security, international influence, self-confidence, prestige, scientific infrastructure, economic modernization and energy diversity while buttressing popular support.

Iran's values, however, can become the West's sword. Consider a potpourri of alternatives:

-- Co-opt Iran's nuclear enrichment ambition. Tehran repeatedly declares that nuclear enrichment will promote energy security. The West should test the contention. Propose an international partnership providing technology, expertise along with co-managers, serving, most important, as expert resident watchdogs with full authority to prevent suspect activities.

-- Sow nuclear fear. Iran, obviously, resides in a dangerous neighborhood. Use public diplomacy to cultivate popular fear that nuclear plants are radiological hostages to terrorist malevolence, military attacks and accidents. Reiterate this question: Do nuclear values outweigh multiple nuclear risks and economic costs for a country with abundant oil, natural gas and solar energy resources?

-- Promote national security foreboding. The mullahs appear to believe that nuclear weapons will promote national security. Impress upon them that the tack will make them less secure. Iran will become an American nuclear weapons target in an era of preemption.

-- Squeeze Iran's economy. The Iranian revolution promised a prosperity that never matured. Economic isolation should follow the failed European negotiation to press home the costs of nuclear perfidy.

-- Support Iran's democratic opposition. Provide covert assistance to such groups as the Tahkimeh Vahdat, a domestic Iranian coalition that seeks to contest the power of the clerics.

-- Use Baghdad to challenge Iran. Should Iraq stabilize and democratize, use what will likely be a Shiite-dominated state to challenge Iran's model of political development to promote regime change.

-- Offer a carrot. Remind Iranians about Libya. Libya's decision to halt its WMD ambitions ended its political and economic isolation. Tehran would likewise benefit.

Each measure tests values that sustain the Islamic regime. Collectively, they provide a largely untried template that avoids the most draconian step that lurks in the background -- namely, military action by Washington or Jerusalem against Tehran's evident nuclear weapons program.

--Bennett Ramberg served in the Department of State's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the administration of George H.W Bush.

--(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

Reproduced with permission from the author

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