Make Iran an Offer It Might Refuse

The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has upended the Bush administration's policy toward that country. This could be a good thing, if it leads to some creative rethinking. Over the past two years the administration has made several intelligent moves in its effort to isolate Iran—keeping the Europeans onboard, rallying the Arab states—but it's been unwilling to make a simple choice. Do we want policy change in Iran or regime change?

Imagine, for a moment, what the world looks like to Iran. The country is surrounded by powerful states with nuclear weapons—Israel, India, Pakistan, China and Russia. Across one of its borders stand some 170,000 American troops (in Iraq), across another are more than 50,000 NATO troops (in Afghanistan). The United States has been bitterly opposed to the Iranian regime for three decades. The current American president has made clear time and again that he regards the Tehran government as evil and wishes that it would fall, and Congress set aside $75 million last year to "promote democracy" in Iran. Now, if you were in Tehran, wouldn't you buy some insurance? And in the world of international politics, a nuclear program is the ultimate insurance policy.

For Washington to threaten a regime with extinction and simultaneously expect it to disarm is a policy doomed to failure. Were we to be clear that what we seek from Tehran is only a change in behavior, a policy of sticks and carrots might actually produce results.

The Iran NIE may or may not be accurate in its details. The truth is we know very little about what goes on inside that country. But its central thrust, confirmed by diplomats who have negotiated with the Iranians, is clearly correct—for years, Iran has been rationally calculating costs and benefits on the nuclear issue. In fact, Tehran has been less messianic and stubborn about its nuclear development than Pakistan, India or China, all of whom pressed ahead with their programs rapidly and secretly. Tehran has moved incrementally, allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct inspections for years (although not entirely to the IAEA's satisfaction) and been sensitive to pressures and inducements from the West.

But the West, meaning Washington, has been stingy in its offers of carrots, which have often been too little and come too late. One European diplomat, who is not authorized to speak on the record, notes that "Iran did in fact stop enrichment in 2003 and had expected to be rewarded for it, as we, the Europeans, had promised them. But our offer was pretty thin because of America's stand. In 2005 the Americans finally came onboard and we made a good proposal. But by then the [Iranian] reformers had been discredited, it was three weeks before the election, and [hard-liner Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad became president."

In fact, one of the oddities of Iran is that it enjoys more open debate than any other Middle Eastern country (with the exception of Israel). In the last month alone, reformist former president Mohammed Khatami addressed a rally at which the crowd chanted "Death to the dictator," referring to the current president. Ahmadinejad accused his opponents of treason and had the former nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, arrested. And prominent clerics in Iran criticized Ahmadinejad, a layman, for trying to challenge their authority. The Iranian system can be influenced because there are competing centers of power within it, each viewing Iran's interests somewhat differently.

What unites them all, however, is Iranian nationalism, and if the nuclear program is seen by Iranians through that prism, it will be unstoppable. Washington's mistake has been to play into that interpretation. Western statesmen should stop declaring that Iran has no use for nuclear power, that it cannot be trusted to enrich uranium. This smacks of paternalism—especially when coming from nations with large nuclear arsenals of their own—and naturally evokes a defensive response.

Instead, Washington and London and Paris should emphasize the costs of continuing to enrich uranium—more than $10 billion to date, according to one estimate. And instead of thundering that Iran is dangerous, President Bush should keep repeating, "We want to have relations with Iran, do business with you, visit your country and have Iranians visit us. We want Iran to join the World Trade Organization and other such bodies. We want you to be a respected nation. But this cannot happen if you do not verifiably end your pursuit of nuclear weaponry and support for terrorism. We are ready to put all this on the table."

We know that Tehran's hard-liners would reject this offer, but it could produce a feisty debate within the regime and outside. It would add to the feeling in the country that this government is mismanaging Iran's foreign policy. It would dramatically alter a stale negotiating dynamic between Iran and the West. If Iran accepted, such an opening would, ironically, strengthen the private sector and civil society, and over time weaken the government's grip on the country. A smart policy could, in the long run, win us both policy change and regime change after all.