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Why not engage Iranian pragmatists?

by Volker Perthes

BERLIN — The recent comprehensive assessment by America’s spy agencies about Iran’s nuclear program and ambitions — the “National Intelligence Estimate” — has opened the door to fresh strategic discussions among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. Such a strategic reconsideration is probably most necessary for those in the Bush administration (and a few elsewhere), who until recently have been prophets of imminent danger.

For Europeans, the NIE has not removed, but rather confirmed, the concerns that in 2003 prompted formation of the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) — namely, that Iran’s nuclear program could eventually give it a military nuclear capability, and that even before that point, it might trigger regional nuclear proliferation.

The NIE also confirmed two assumptions that have since guided European diplomatic approach: Iran reacts to external incentives and disincentives, and taking legitimate Iranian interests into consideration is the best way to influence Iran’s leaders.

Most Europeans who have been dealing with the issue also assume that Iran is aiming at capacities that would eventually make available all options, including quick development of a nuclear weapon, rather than actually acquiring, let alone testing, a weapon and thereby violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

So concern about Iran’s nuclear program is still justified. The robust diplomatic approach that is needed to confront the problem must include three components: (1) It should be based on a broad international consensus; (2) it should clearly communicate that the issue is proliferation, not the nature of the Iranian regime; (3) any further sanctions should be accompanied by an earnest offer of dialogue and engagement.

By contrast, some American policymakers continue to believe that Iran would abandon its enrichment program if only the European Union imposed unilateral sanctions. But a clearheaded analysis of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s behavior indicates that EU sanctions would lead to more trade diversion, with China, Russia, Turkey, or Dubai benefiting from reduced levels of European exports to Iran.

Of course, some imports would become more expensive for Iran, but the economic effect of such sanctions would remain limited. Politically, Ahmadinejad certainly would not miss the chance to exploit unilateral measures for propaganda purposes — claiming that Iran has a conflict not with the international community, but with imperialist states intent on depriving his country of technological progress.

For these reasons, Europeans favor a new Security Council resolution, even if its measures are weaker than what the U.S. or the EU could impose unilaterally. Such a resolution would send an effective signal to the Iranian public and political elite that Iran is in conflict with the entire international community.

Iranians do not like to be isolated; even the clerical elite has a strong interest in exchanges with the rest of the world, and they like to send their children to Western schools. Making it obvious that it is Ahmadinejad’s policies that are isolating Iran would strengthen the still-fragile anti-Ahmadinejad alliance of pragmatic conservatives and reformers, which has lately become more vocal.

This is important to bear in mind, as a parliamentary (majlis) election is scheduled for March. The election will not be entirely free, but the government will be unable to manipulate them entirely. The majlis plays a role in the political process, to the point of being able to induce or hinder policy changes: Witness the way a conservative majlis blocked reformist President Mohammad Khatami in the last years of his term.

Europeans should now be confident enough to call for a common policy with the U.S. that focuses on domestic developments in Iran. Such a policy can include additional Security Council sanctions, but it must also carry an offer of dialogue that pragmatic forces in Iran would not refuse.

Both the EU and the U.S. should be prepared to enter into direct, comprehensive, and unconditional negotiations with Iran. Where security guarantees are concerned, America is Iran’s actual foe and potential partner. So far, the two governments have communicated either through the EU or on strictly limited issues through their ambassadors in Baghdad. The U.S. has so far insisted that it will agree to a comprehensive dialogue only if Iran first suspends its enrichment activities. But this should be the result of, not a precondition for, negotiations.

Whatever the U.S. and Europe decide to do about Iran will affect that country’s internal political dynamics.

There are no easy mechanics at work here. The best method of strengthening Ahmadinejad, however, appears to be to threaten the country and the regime as a whole. An honest offer of engagement would allow Ahmadinejad’s pragmatic opponents to show that it is Iran’s president and his controversial policies, not the West, that are at fault.

Volker Perthes is chairman and director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin. Copyright 2007 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)