Don’t do mullahs’ bidding


NEW DELHI — The United States and European Union have taken the lead in framing a robust international response to a series of provocative actions by Iran’s hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The wise way to tackle a renegade Iran, however, is not through punitive action, but through sustained international pressure.

Any penal steps against a theocratic state that has already faced assorted sanctions for more than a quarter-century would only play into the hands of the Iranian mullahs and their political deputies led by Ahmadinejad. Since coming to office last August, Ahmadinejad has adopted fiery rhetoric reminiscent of Grand Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

New sanctions could constrict already-tight world oil supplies and further drive up prices, affecting the global economy. A diplomatic or military confrontation with Iran (the second-largest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) would have a greater impact on world oil supplies and prices than the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Unlike in 2003, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other OPEC producers do not have the spare capacity to make up a supply deficit.

Sanctions would also demoralize and dent the large, growing constituency of moderate Iranians that oppose the clergy’s political role. Any major punitive action, moreover, is likely to provoke Tehran to play its energy and nuclear cards in a way the West might regret.

All told, the United States, Britain, Germany and France — the four states most actively seeking to discipline Iran — do not have a credible plan of action that could help tame the clerical regime in Tehran. Rather their present approach could prove counterproductive, adding to the list of America’s Iran blunders, including the 1980 U.S.-encouraged Iraqi aggression under Saddam Hussein against postrevolution Iran.

If one accepts that Ahmadinejad’s actions are premeditated with the intent to needle and provoke the West, it follows logically that the U.S., Europe and democracies like Japan, Israel and India should not walk into his trap. Pushed against the wall by growing Western pressures, Ahmadinejad’s regime has calculated that Iran has little to lose if it hit back.

Nothing would please Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs more than to be handed a freshly chiseled sanctions tool to whip up nationalism at home.

Rather than be incited into imposing sanctions by the Iranian president’s wacky actions — from breaking nuclear-facility seals to announcing a conference that would call into question evidence that the Nazis conducted a mass murder of European Jews during World War II — it would be more prudent to find quiet ways to choke Iran’s nuclear ambitions and internationally isolate Ahmadinejad. It is possible to achieve both.

A sober, able response, however, has been made harder to shape because reaction to Ahmadinejad’s incendiary rhetoric and irresponsible actions in some international circles has veered toward the extreme, as exemplified by public calls for exemplary punishment and even a military option against Iran.

Iran is years away from acquiring the capability to build a nuclear weapon. And it is unlikely to attain such capability as long as the International Atomic Energy Agency is tightly monitoring its nuclear program, as it has been ever since it discovered undeclared Iranian nuclear activity. The U.S. failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has proven that IAEA inspections work.

The only way Iran could build nuclear military capability would be if it exercised its right to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and kicked out IAEA inspectors — the route North Korea chose. That is exactly what coercive action or sanctions against Iran will invite.

Ahmadinejad has sprung a nasty surprise by abruptly ending a two-year Iranian moratorium on nuclear research activity. But by daring the IAEA and Security Council to declare Iran in breach of its legal obligations, he demonstrates the method to his madness.

He is directly challenging the implicit U.S.-led effort to divide nonnuclear states into two categories — those that can and cannot pursue nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities. He seeks to bring matters to a head in the crisis-torn NPT.

The challenges that confront the nonproliferation regime go far beyond the Iran case. Those challenges are symbolized by the nine-year impasse at the U.N.’s disarmament negotiating forum in Geneva; the lack of any reference to disarmament or nonproliferation in the final document of the World Summit at the U.N. last September; the bleak prospects of bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force; and the stunning failure of the 2005 NPT review conference to produce any consensus.

Defusing the NPT crisis demands greater attention to finding ways to resolve international differences on three core areas — disarmament, nonproliferation and peaceful applications of nuclear energy. Misplaced, one-dimensional zealotry on nonproliferation that seeks to portray Iran as a central challenge to the NPT not only misses the wood for the trees but also risks doing what Ahmadinejad wants — exacerbate the regime’s problems.

At issue are Iran’s intentions, not capabilities. They can be effectively monitored and checkmated through stepped-up IAEA inspections and by greater multilateral cooperation on export controls to ensure that no sensitive items or designs reach Iran, especially from China, Russia and Pakistan.

As a country wedged between five nuclear-weapons states — Israel, Russia, China, Pakistan and India — and part of U.S. President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” Iran has an entrenched proclivity to play nuclear politics. But the international effort should be to blunt rather than sharpen the very card that helped bring Ahmadinejad to power — nuclear nationalism.