Threats are not the way to influence Tehran

International Herald Tribune, France
July 1 2004

Threats are not the way to influence Tehran

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi and Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh IHT

Iran’s nuclear program

TEHRAN In the aftermath of the UN atomic agency’s stinging criticism
of Iran’s nuclear program, Secretary of State Colin Powell threatened
to seek UN sanctions against Tehran in September. But if the United
States is serious about deterring Iran’s ruling clergy from going
nuclear, it must first address Iran’s national security worries.

As the crisis over Iran’s seizure of several British naval craft in
the disputed Shatt al Arab waterway demonstrates, Iran’s worries
about the spillover of the Iraqi conflict over its vast western
borders are real. To the east, Afghanistan remains a hotbed of
narcotics trafficking and warlords. Pakistan is an unstable pivot. To
the north, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia have their own levels
of instability; to the west, Turkey faces Kurdish irredentism fueled
by the developments in Iraq. In the Gulf, an endemic Sunni militancy
led by Al Qaeda threatens Saudi Arabia and other oil sheikdoms.

But it is the Bush administration’s advocacy of regime change in
Iran, as part of the “axis of evil,” that must account for much of
Iran’s current security disquiet, nourishing its thirst for nuclear

Iran’s policy makers and security analysts have been weighing for
some time the benefits and risks of its nuclear program.

The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have lifted two direct threats
to Iran. Gone for the foreseeable future is Iran’s worry over Iraq’s
weapons of mass destruction, or another round of war like the bloody
eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Moreover, Iran’s ailing economy would suffer greatly under UN
economic sanctions. Iran’s clerical rulers cannot be indifferent to
the decision by Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi to halt his nuclear
program and admit that his country’s security and economy would
suffer if he crossed the nuclear threshold. Sanctions would exact a
heavy price on the government’s resources at a time it is already
suffering a high unemployment rate, particularly among its large and
restless youth population, and when Tehran has yet to move the
victims of the Bam earthquake from tents into homes.

Yet if Tehran continues to feel threatened by regional instability
and by Washington’s (and Israel’s) open advocacy of regime change, it
will likely veer in the direction of nuclearization.

Thus Iran’s decision whether to pursue nuclear development is a
matter of striking a balance between national interests and
legitimate security worries.

Hence the United States and its allies should do what they can to
diminish Iran’s fears and to encourage a viable security arrangement
in the Gulf region in tandem with the United Nations.

Confidence-building measures – such as guaranteeing Iran’s integrity
or acknowledging Iran’s constructive conflict-management role in the
region – would achieve a lot more toward Iranian nonproliferation
than years or even decades of sanctions.

This, in turn, requires a willingness by the United States to
recognize Iran’s important role in regional stability, as
demonstrated by its cordial relations with the government of Hamid
Karzai in Kabul and its endorsement of the interim government in
Baghdad. Another positive signal would be to support Iran’s bid to
join the World Trade Organization, where it has only observer status.

The United States could also propose to drop its objections to Iran’s
construction of a nuclear reactor in Bushehr if Iran would suspend
its uranium enrichment program, halt the construction of a heavy
water plant and submit to thorough inspections.

While there is no guarantee of success for this “soft power”
approach, the current approach of demonizing Iran and threatening
sanctions will only motivate Tehran to pursue its nuclear ambitions.
A combination of security guarantees, economic benefits, support for
Iran’s legitimate right to peaceful nuclear technology and the olive
branch of diplomatic normalization has a much better chance of
putting Iran back on the path of nonproliferation than any other

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is an Iranian political scientist who lives in the
United States. Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh is a professor of geopolitics at
Tarbiat Modaress University in Iran and director of the Eurosevic
Foundation in London. Iran’s nuclear program