09/14/2012 08:40 am ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

Iran-Israel: Build Trust, Don't Bomb

A dangerous standoff currently exists between Iran and Israel, and it's characterized by unsustainable tensions with regard to Iran's enrichment of uranium. After uranium is enriched to 20 percent purity (or higher), it becomes relatively easy to make nuclear weapons.

Iran insists on its right to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes and asserts that it has not violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A skeptical Israel, backed by the United States and some of the international community, believes that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons and demands that Iran should stop any further enrichment. Consequently, Israel is pushing for a military attack to deter such an eventuality.

To explore possible solutions to this volatile issue in greater depth, I interviewed a wide range of experts on this topic from the United States, Israel and Iran. Most people interviewed believe that tension-diffusing and trust-building strategies are a better option than war in this situation.

To dissuade Iran from continuing its uranium enrichment program, the international community has implemented several measures including applying sanctions, carrying out assassinations of key Iranian scientists, orchestrating successful virus attacks on its computer controlled production plants. Ultimately, military attacks appear to be emerging as an alternative to employ against Iran.

Fortunately, war does not seem to be inevitable. Among many people I interviewed, I talked with Mohammad Takhshid, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Tehran.

He said, "Israel doesn't have [the] capability to effectively attack Iran and the United States and [also cannot attack Iran] at the present time because of its [up]coming presidential election and its concern for wider regional conflict. As long as the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West [are] in progress, I doubt there would be any attack by Israel or joint US-Israel attack against Iran."

In general, there was a consensus among my interviewees that an attack would lead to more harm than good and that effective diplomacy is a superior option.

Annie Samuel, Research Fellow at Harvard University, expressed faith in diplomacy.

She said, "Since the negotiations resumed this year, both sides have displayed a commitment to continuing them and seem to realize that breaking them off is likely to lead to war. That is positive."

Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program of The International Institute for Strategic Studies, supports effective diplomacy for this situation.

"Diplomacy should be pursued with more creativity but it takes two to tango," he said. "Iran's leadership is not likely to accept [any] concession that places limits [on] its [nuclear] program. Diplomacy needs to be pursued with more vigor."

The tone of the dialogue, however, needs to change. According to a report by the NGO Pugwash, Iran has frequently been subjected to condescending behavior and has not been taken seriously. Future diplomatic approaches should aim to lower tension and increase optimism.

My interviews point to several peaceful measures that can be employed instead of or in conjunction with conventional diplomacy. For any real progress to occur, building trust among the key parties involved is imperative. Without trust, tensions cannot fully subside and reasonable dialogue becomes difficult.

Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times journalist Eric Schmitt confirmed this, stating, "It's important to defuse tensions to reduce the chances of Israel attacking Iran's nuclear sites."

Since a number of incidents have battered this trust, more should be done by both Iran and Israel to demonstrate their sincerity.

Iran should be persuaded to allow outsiders to see the situation from an Iranian perspective. NGOs can be employed to help key leaders work jointly towards a peaceful resolution.

Marianne Ibrahim, the communications coordinator for Al Sawt Al Hurr suggested, "NGOs working on cultural change, student exchanges, spreading enlightenment and art, etc." could be effective alternative methods to promote a more peaceful resolution. Assassinating scientists and launching cyber attacks is detrimental to trust-building and indeed, make Iran even more defiant. Instead, having senior scientists from both countries work together in each others' scientific facilities could increase trust and information sharing.

Robert Kelley, retired staff member from Los Alamos National Laboratory (Project leader for nuclear intelligence) and retired Director at IAEA with experience in the Iraq Nuclear Inspections and analysis, offered some useful ideas.

"The [international] community should take a more balanced approach with Iran [and] small concessions on Iran's part will be met with small concessions on [lifting] sanctions, etc.," he said. "Iran should stop enriching to 20 percent immediately." He continued, "Iran must allow complete IAEA inspection of declared nuclear materials. The IAEA will be the tripwire if Iran decides to break promises and divert uranium to bombs."

Jonathan Pearl, a 2010-2011 fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, gave me a simple but direct solution. "I am oversimplifying the issue, but you need to get to the source of the issue: open up facilities and ensure transparency," he said. "I think that negotiation coupled with sanctions is the best option right now."

Many of the people I interviewed thought that Israel and its allies may officially need to recognize that under the NPT, Iran does have the legal right to enrich uranium -- a right recently recognized by the 120-Nation Nonaligned Movement during their meeting in Tehran. How to safeguard against Iran enriching uranium beyond the 20 percent and potentially developing nuclear weapons remains the key issue. Iran needs to be persuaded to reduce uranium enrichment to lower than 20 percent and also be more transparent in its enrichment program. Israel and its allies need to recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium to an agreed-upon level. Ultimately, compromise is needed from both sides. Trust, however, is an a priori condition for effective dialogue and compromise to take place. The international community and NGOs can be significant in facilitating trust building, but action needs to be taken soon before the door closes for a peaceful resolution.