02/28/2008 01:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Defusing Tension With Iran While Promoting Regional Stability

Although the recently published National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) has changed the nature of the international discussion about Iran's nuclear ambition, it has not answered with certainty the question of Iran's ultimate intention to acquire nuclear weapons. Whereas the NIE suggests there is "high probability" that Iran has frozen its nuclear weapons program in 2003, neither the United States nor Israel, the two nations most distrustful of Iran's intent, are willing to accept the new findings as definitive and permanent enough to warrant a reconciliatory approach toward Iran. But the new report offers the Bush administration an opportunity, and imposes new obligations, for it to engage Iran through direct and unconditional negotiations in an effort to defuse the nuclear issue and substantially improve the prospects for regional stability.

Iran's insistence on its right to enrich uranium, a prerequisite to developing nuclear weapons, remains the core of the dispute. Regardless of how consistent it may be with the provisions provided by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory, Tehran's behavior and defiance of the international community continues to raise serious questions about its real intentions. Iran has hidden much of its nuclear development program for 18 years, it continues to seek industrial-scale enrichment of uranium, it supports Islamic and Arab extremism in Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, it repeatedly threatens Israel existentially, and it consistently undermines the Arab-Israeli peace process. Together, these actions and public pronouncements invite not only suspicion but also great concern over Tehran's ambition to become the region's hegemon, possibly armed with nuclear weapons once it chooses to renew its nuclear weapons program. But whereas the Bush administration is right in condemning Tehran's unsavory activities, it was wrong in its approach and policies toward Iran before the new intelligence estimate was made public and certainly is wrong now that Iran has presumably halted its nuclear weapons program.

For nearly seven years the administration has failed to articulate a coherent policy toward Tehran and bring it to heel. Mr. Bush's wishy-washy approach has permitted Tehran to outwit Washington in the game of brinkmanship and gain the time it needed to make tremendous progress in its quest, at least until 2003, to acquire the know-how for making nuclear weapons. The administration's refusal to conduct direct negotiations, its obsession with regime change, and its preoccupation with Iraq have given Iran leverage to refuse to negotiate on America's terms while emboldening it to defy Washington without fear of reprisal. Meanwhile, Britain, France, and Germany, representing the European Community (EU), have made little headway in their on-again off-again negotiations with Iran. By the time, more than a year ago, they presented Iran with a so-called generous economic incentive package and a promise that the Americans would enter into the negotiations if Tehran stopped its uranium enrichment program, Iran was swimming in oil money, more than $100 billion in hard currency.

Meanwhile, Tehran has been dismissive of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution calling on it to end its uranium enrichment program by the end of August 2007. Tehran's governing clergy has and still is counting on Russia and China, with their substantial oil and gas interests in Iran, to prevent any meaningful economic sanctions from being imposed on it by a future UNSC resolution. Moreover, the lessons of the administration's negotiations with North Korea were not lost on Iran. Pyongyang's adamant refusal to give up its nuclear program before sitting down face-to-face with the Americans and then receiving much of the economic incentives and security guaranties that it has demanded, offered the Iranian clergy a strategy. Iran's propensity for playing for time was only encouraged by the administration's inability to fashion a coherent policy that could mobilize the international community to act in concert against Iran. Thus playing for time by stalling and resorting to ambiguities and contradictions served Iran's designs well, whatever they may be. As a result, the Bush administration has been forced to settle for ever-reducible leverage. Now as the administration makes the claim that its policy up to now has forced Iran to freeze its nuclear program, it must capitalize on the new NIE, depart from its current policy, and chart a much bolder course of action.

Any new policy by the administration must begin with its ending all public denunciations of Iran and reintroducing some civility to the public arena. The United States ought not to stoop to Iran's President Ahmadinejad's level by trying to match his outrageous public pronouncements. The administration must consider Iran's national mindset, which is nurtured by a religious ideology that has nothing or little to do with reality. Ahmadinejad, who revels in American denunciations and the attention paid to his pronouncements, now feels particularly emboldened by America's own intelligence community. He may even welcome another Bush misadventure, one that will finally destroy what is left of America's prestige and power in the wake of the Iraq war. From the time Mr. Bush labeled Iran as a member of the axis of evil, followed by constant repudiation and criticism of its behavior, Tehran simply intensified its anti-American and anti-Israeli activities. By all assessments, Iran has reaped the greatest benefits from the Iraq war. The war has provided Iran with an historic opportunity to establish Shiite dominance in the region, which makes its aggressive pursuit of a nuclear weapons program a more plausible way of deterring any challenge to its strategy. Tehran is fully cognizant that the successful pursuit of its regional hegemony has now become intertwined with the clout that a nuclear program bestows, even if it is not intended to lead to the development of nuclear weapons, which Iran has never claimed to seek. Now that international pressure is likely to recede following the new intelligence estimate, it is most unlikely that Iran will give up its uranium enrichment program at this juncture; unless it concludes the price will be too high to bear. Thus while before the Iraq war Washington could deal with Iran's nuclear program by itself, now it must also disabuse Iran of the belief that it can achieve its regional objectives with impunity.

The second phase of the new American policy should offer Iran a face-saving way out. Fearing that continued enrichment of uranium will provide Iran with the essential ingredient to develop nuclear weapons, the administration can make a real case against Iran and resolve the present impasse by not conditioning direct negotiations with Tehran to the suspension of the enrichment of uranium.

Instead, to prevent Iran from using its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the NPT provisions while playing Russia and China against the EU and the United States, Washington must enter into direct and unconditional negotiations with Iran, along with its European partners and with Russia and China, for a limited period of, say three months. During this time, a negotiated settlement must be hammered out that satisfies both America and Iran. This approach will allow Tehran to continue to enrich uranium only during the negotiations, satisfying Iran's main demand while giving it a face-saving way out. But permanent suspension will be the result rather than the precondition of the negotiations. The presence at the negotiating table of Russia and China, the two countries least likely to support new sanctions against Iran, is critical, especially if no agreement is reached, for the United States has then shown that it negotiated in good faith and exhausted all possible diplomatic options.

During these negotiations, the administration should offer a detailed economic incentive package so Iran knows precisely the potential gains and losses should it decide to turn down the American/European offer. Regardless of the size of the economic incentive, since Iran fears America the most, Tehran, like North Korea, will insist on a non-belligerent agreement with the United States, which could eventually lead to normalized relations and regional security. Surely, this will require the administration to abandon its old policy of regime change and accept the Iranian clergy as the legitimate government of Iran. But then, what other realistic options does the United States have? Any political change in Iran must come from within. In fact, it is the threat against the regime itself that pushes the government to tighten its grip on power. In Iran, a growing moderate and powerful constituency recognizes the importance of normalizing relations with the United States. This constituency can become far more vocal in promoting significant social and political reforms without being accused of disloyalty provided that their government is no longer threatened by the United States.

Should negotiations break down after three months without any agreement being reached and Iran still refuses to halt its uranium enrichment, the administration will then be in a much stronger position to mobilize the international community, especially Russia and China, to consider punitive measures against Tehran. Otherwise, in the wake of the NIE, neither country will support a new set of UN sanctions that could inflict real hardship on Iran. Still, because of Russia's and China's tremendous oil and gas interests in Iran, they are vested in finding a peaceful solution to the impasse between Iran and the United States. Neither wants to risk its long-term, multi-billion dollar investments. They will also realize that they have nothing to lose, but something tangible to gain, if they remain resolute in the face of the Iranian defiance because Iran will compromise on "its right" to enrich uranium only if it sees no other way out. Russia and China, however, will cooperate with the United States only as long as they are convinced that the administration, having relied on faulty intelligence to make its case against Iran, is now willing to exhaust all diplomatic channels. The conditions under which negotiations should be conducted must also convince Iran that failure to reach agreement could lead to crippling economic sanctions, or other coercive measures deemed necessary, even if they are imposed only by the United States and the EU. That is why Russia's and China's presence at the negotiating table will soften their challenge to the United States to take measures against Iran, with the potential of producing a devastating effect.

The Bush administration must also seek better working relations and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In the final analysis, the IAEA is the non-proliferation watchdog and the administration must not work at cross purposes with it. Thus far, the Iranian government has skillfully played the IAEA against the United States, managing to gain more time while seeking legitimate cover under the IAEA rules. This strategy's success allowed President Ahmadinejad to state in his speech of September 2007 at the United Nations General Assembly that Iran's nuclear issue is no longer political but technical in nature and can be resolved between the IAEA and Tehran without outside interference. Although the IAEA Director Mohamed El Baradei welcomed the new NIE report, he strongly suggested that it "should prompt Iran to work actively with the IAEA to clarify specific aspects of its past and present nuclear program as outlined in the work plan and through the implementation of the additional protocol." In any future negotiations with Iran, Tehran should have no choice but to accept unfettered inspection by the IAEA while observing total and complete transparency in all its nuclear facilities, with no exceptions.

One other critical issue must be kept in mind: If the administration fails to end Iran's nuclear program peacefully, it will be left to Israel, which remains convinced that Iran is still actively pursuing nuclear weapons program, to deal with the situation. Concerning Iran's nuclear program, Israeli intelligence may be more accurate, specifically because of Israel's pervasive human intelligence in the region. Although America and Israel share, among other things, pertinent intelligence, their respective intelligence communities do not always reach the same conclusion. For one thing, feeling consistently threatened by Iran, Israel delves much deeper into intentions discerned from religious convictions, which requires a more nuanced intelligence analysis that a more detached examination tends to yield. For this reason, Israel does not accept the freezing of Iran's nuclear program in 2003 as non-reversible. In fact, Israel believes the program has already been reversed and that Iran's ambition to reach industrial levels of uranium enrichment only reinforces this contention.

For Israel the point of no return (at which Tehran masters the technology to produce nuclear weapons) looms ever closer. Israeli intelligence circles and government officials disagree with the new NIE, believing that Iran could reach this point in less than two years, not the five to seven years estimated by the CIA. Iran's president has repeatedly and unambiguously threatened Israel's right to exist. No Israeli government will be foolish enough not to take these threats very seriously. After reading the new NIE, Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested: "It is our responsibility to ensure that the right steps are taken against the Iranian regime. As is well known, words don't stop missiles . . . . We cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the earth, even if it is from our greatest friend." The war in Lebanon was a rude awakening. A nuclear Iran does intend to "eradicate the nuclear prestige of Israel" as the Iranian newspaper Kayham editorialized recently; its goal, many Israelis believe, is Israel's eradication. For the Israelis, then, the Iranian threat is very real, and the international community must open its eyes to the looming danger.

During his remaining year in office, President Bush has to choose between defusing tensions with Iran while promoting regional stability, or, continuing his bellicose denunciation of Tehran, which could lead inadvertently or by design to violent conflict. It was his administration that turned down Iran's offer in early 2003 to negotiate a comprehensive peaceful settlement between the two sides. The burden is on Mr. Bush to now make a far more credible case against Iran than before the new NIE came to light and convince a most skeptical international community and the American public of Tehran's real nuclear threat.

In sum, only through face-to-face negotiations will the administration be in a position to discern the true intentions of the Iranian government; completely remove the danger of nuclear threat, and begin to set in place the building blocks of peace and stability.

Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses in international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Dr. Ben-Meir is also the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute.