A New Approach To Iran and Its Nukes

Everywhere you look in the Middle East today, Iran is threatening U.S. interests and the political order. The Iranians see themselves as a rising power, and are warning their neighbors of the costs of friendship with Washington. As one Arab ambassador told me recently, the Iranians have begun reminding Arab leaders that America didn't help Fuad Siniora, the prime minister of Lebanon, or Mikheil Saaskashvili, the president of Georgia, when both got into trouble—in fact, Washington left them high and dry. Iran, by contrast, is close by and not going anywhere. And it will make life difficult for those that cross it. (Story continued below...)

If Iran is already acting in intimidating ways, imagine what would happen if the country goes nuclear and gains an atomic shield behind which to engage in coercion and subversion.

This means that the next president must do all he can to stop Iran from getting the bomb. And that will take a very different approach from the Bush administration's. Bush's policy has failed: Iran wasn't a nuclear power when he became president, but by the time he leaves office, it will have become one. Iran is currently converting uranium ore to gas, enriching that gas and stockpiling low-enriched uranium. It doesn't have the bomb yet, but the next U.S. president won't have much time or many options to stop it from getting one.

Fortunately, while it won't be easy, it's not too late to block the Iranian weapons program. Tehran clearly wants nukes for both defensive and offensive purposes. But it's not clear the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would sacrifice anything to get them. In fact, history shows that his government responds to outside pressure, restricting its actions when it feels threatened and taking advantage when it judges it can. In 2003, for example, after the U.S. military made short work of the Iraqi Army—something Iran hadn't managed to do in eight years of war—Tehran quickly reached out to Washington, sending a proposal through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran that sought to allay U.S. concerns about Iran's weapons program and about its support for Hizbullah and Hamas. (Sadegh Kharrazi, the main drafter of the proposal, said last year that it was fear in the Iranian elite that helped to produce the overture.)

By contrast, when the U.S. government released a National Intelligence Estimate on Dec. 3, 2007, concluding that Iran had suspended its weaponization program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quickly went on the offensive, crowing that this was proof that confrontation had worked and the Americans had backed down. And the Supreme Leader declared that Ahma-dinejad's approach had been vindicated. The message was clear: when the Iranians believe the pressure is off, they become more aggressive.

As this implies, Iran has pursued nuclear weapons because the Bush administration hasn't applied enough pressure—or offered Iran enough rewards for giving them up. The U.N. sanctions adopted in the past three years apply primarily to Iran's nuclear and missile industries and haven't targeted its economy. That's given Tehran the luxury of ignoring them. Hitting the economy more directly would force Tehran to make a choice. Iran has profound economic vulnerabilities: it imports 43 percent of its gasoline, and its oil and natural-gas industries—the government's key source of revenue, which it uses to buy off its population—desperately need huge amounts of new investment and technology. Iran also faces high inflation and unemployment. Tough sanctions that exploit these problems would force Iran's leaders to see the high costs—as they measure them—of not changing their nuclear behavior.

The way to achieve such pressure is to go outside the United Nations and get the Europeans, Japanese and Chinese to cooperate. Washington also needs the Saudis, who have enormous financial clout and a huge stake in the issue. The United States must work with these countries to cut Iran's economic lifeline, break its ability to do business and block its ability to attract investments and secure credit.

The irony is that the more Washington shows it's willing to engage Iran directly, the more these other parties, especially the Europeans, will feel comfortable ratcheting up the pressure. In the past, the Europeans feared a slippery slope to confrontation. Talking to Iran will ease that fear while justifying increased sanctions. Europeans have also complained that if they reduce their business with Iran, the Chinese will pick up the slack. But having the Chinese onboard will allay that fear. And that's where the Saudis come in: if Beijing is given a choice between relations with the Saudis and relations with Iran, they'll pick the Saudis—for China's economic stakes in the kingdom dwarf their interests in Iran.

Sharp sticks, of course, must be balanced by appetizing carrots. Without them, the Iranians will remain convinced that the United States is interested only in regime change—and that Iran needs nukes to protect itself. So the next president will have to provide Iran with induce-ments compelling enough to convince it that Iran will profit significantly by forgoing nuclear weapons. America would have to offer political, economic and security benefits—on the condition that Iran change its behavior not just on nukes but on terrorism as well. Strong sticks will show Iran what it stands to lose by going nuclear; carrots will show its leaders what they would gain by moderating their behavior. Smart statecraft involves figuring out how to put both kinds of measures together—directly and with other states that have even more leverage. Such statecraft is needed now to avoid two terrible outcomes: living with a nuclear Iran, or acting militarily to try to prevent it.