Time for Detente with Iran
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As the United States reconsiders its Iran policy, it should dispense with the notion of offering Tehran security guarantees. It is conventional, even routine, in Washington policy circles to suggest that the Iran conundrum can be resolved only if the Bush administration pledges not to attack Iran. This argument reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Islamic Republic perceives its power and its place in the Middle East today. The guardians of the theocratic regime do not fear the United States; they do not relate to the international community from a position of strategic vulnerability. Tehran now seeks not assurances against U.S. military strikes but an acknowledgment of its status and influence.
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The most effective way for Washington to resolve this uncertainty in its favor would be to practice more imaginative diplomacy. That would require more than a policy shift; it would require a paradigm shift. Guided by the notion of containment, U.S. policymakers have long seen the normalization of relations as the end result of a long process of negotiations. But with a new policy of engagement, normalization would have to be the starting point of talks; it would then facilitate discussions on issues such as nuclear weapons and terrorism. A strategy that seeks to create a web of mutually reinforcing security and economic arrangements has the best chance of tying Iran to the status quo in the region. In essence, a new situation would be created in which Tehran's relationship with Washington would be more valuable to the regime than either its ties to Hezbollah or its pursuit of nuclear arms.To provoke such a change, Washington must strengthen the hands of the pragmatists in Tehran by offering Iran relief from sanctions and diplomatic relations. Washington's recognition of Iran's regional status and deepened economic ties with the West might finally enable the pragmatists to push Khamenei to marginalize the radicals who insist that only confrontation with the United States can allow Iran to achieve its national objectives.
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In this spirit, Washington must abandon its hopeless policy of regime change, including its paltry award of $75 million to Iranian exiles and for broadcasts into Iran. For one thing, such idealism is misplaced. Unlike Eastern Europe in the 1980s, Iran simply does not have a cohesive opposition movement willing to take direction and funding from the United States. For another, calls for regime change are counterproductive. Washington's fulminations and its provision of aid to the (nonexistent) democratic opposition have convinced many Iranian hard-liners that Washington's offer to negotiate is an attempt to undermine the regime in Tehran. Thus, any effort by moderates to engage with the United States is routinely denounced as a concession to the Great Satan's subversive ploys. Iran will certainly change, but on its own terms and at its own pace. The United States has an interest in promoting a more tolerant government in Tehran, but it will not help itself by broadcasting tall tales from Iranian exiles or with Bush's appeals to an indifferent Iranian populace. Integrating Iran into the world economy and global society would do far more to accelerate its democratic transformation.
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In fact, containment never worked -- and it has even less of a chance of working in the future. Its failures have been well documented in yearly reports by the State Department, which detail Iran's ongoing support for terrorism and warn of advances in its nuclear program. Sanctions and other forms of U.S. pressure have failed to prevent Iranian misbehavior. Worse, the Bush administration has taken steps recently that make containment an even less effective policy. Washington's ill-advised invasion of Iraq has benefited Iran by empowering local Shiite parties sympathetic to Tehran. Long gone are the days when a powerful, Sunni-dominated Iraq could function as a counterweight to Shiite power in Iran. Iraq's Shiites are hardly homogeneous, but the leading Shiite parties in power in Baghdad -- Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- have intimate ties to Tehran. This does not mean that Iraq's new leaders are willing to subordinate their interests to those of Iran, but they are unlikely to confront the Islamic Republic at the behest of Washington.
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If it hopes to tame Iran, the United States must rethink its strategy from the ground up. The Islamic Republic is not going away anytime soon, and its growing regional influence cannot be limited. Washington must eschew superficially appealing military options, the prospect of conditional talks, and its policy of containing Iran in favor of a new policy of détente. In particular, it should offer pragmatists in Tehran a chance to resume diplomatic and economic relations. Thus armed with the prospect of a new relationship with the United States, the pragmatists would be in a position to sideline the radicals in Tehran and try to tip the balance of power in their own favor. The sooner Washington recognizes these truths and finally normalizes relations with its most enduring Middle Eastern foe, the better.
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When discussing Iran, President George W. Bush commonly insists that "all options are on the table" -- a not-so-subtle reminder that Washington might use force against Tehran if all else fails. This threat overlooks the fact that the United States has no realistic military option against Iran. To protect its nuclear facilities from possible U.S. strikes, Iran has dispersed them throughout the country and placed them deep underground. Any U.S. attack would thus have to overcome both intelligence-related challenges (how to find the sites) and thorny logistical ones (how to hit them). (As the Iraq debacle has shown, U.S. intelligence is not always as reliable as it should be.) And even a successful military attack would not end the mullahs' nuclear ambitions; it would only motivate them to rebuild the destroyed facilities, and to do so with even less regard for Iran's treaty obligations.