How to get along with Iran, without a bomb

By Lee Hamilton
Aug 11 2008

 We are approaching the 30th anniversary of the first protests leading up to the overthrow of Mohamad Reza Shah Pahlavi and Iran's Islamic Revolution. Ever since the upheaval of 1978–1979, how to engage — or not engage — the Islamic Republic has been one of the most contentious questions in American foreign policy.

The United States has long denied the Iranian government's post–revolutionary legitimacy, but today's risks of nuclear proliferation demand that we deal with the Iranian government as it is, not as we might like it to be. Our objective should be to change Iran's behavior, specifically, gaining a verifiable Iranian commitment to halting uranium enrichment and forgoing nuclear–weapons development, while pushing Iran toward a more democratic political system and cooperative posture.

Although the U.S. should never take the military option off the table, I oppose a U.S. military strike now. At best it would slow, not destroy, the Iranian nuclear program, rallying support for the hardliners in Iran and making a negotiated settlement virtually impossible. It would undercut U.S. policy in Iraq and the region. It could prompt Iranian retaliatory moves.

Since Iran has yet to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb, there is still time for skillful diplomacy, a combination of incentives (WTO membership) and the prospect of intensified sanctions, to work.

The U.S. and Iran should both try to de–escalate the present standoff through less–bellicose rhetoric and less threatening actions. Talk of bombing Iran legitimizes military action, and even encourages American or Israeli use of force. It convinces Iran that only a nuclear weapon can deter an attack. The U.S. deployment of two carrier groups off Iran's coast and reported covert actions, including disinformation and currency manipulation, further heighten tensions.

Meanwhile, Iran makes progress toward an agreement very difficult. It supplies bombs in Iraq, resupplies Hezbollah in Lebanon, gives Hamas millions of dollars in aid, arrests Americans in Iran, and provides small arms to its old Taliban enemy in Afghanistan.

We should: state our respect for the Iranian people, renounce regime change as a policy objective, and seek opportunities for dialogue. We must acknowledge Iran's security concerns and its right to a civilian nuclear program.

Setting the suspension of uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiations was a dead end, as the Bush administration is now recognizing.

Only direct sustained engagement alongside our European allies can lead to a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue. Iran must be given a choice: suspend nuclear fuel production and cooperate with inspectors in exchange for incentives from the West or continue down the current path to harsher penalties and deeper isolation. Should Iran choose intransigence, Russia and China might then be more amenable to crippling measures, such as restrictions on imports of refined petroleum products.

The opening of a U.S. interests section in Tehran, which appears likely, similar to what exists in Havana, could bolster America's understanding of the situation on the ground and open a channel to the Iranian people, and perhaps eventually to the Iranian government itself.

We should be under no illusions as to the difficulty of dealing with the Iranian regime. But engagement is necessary and will not diminish our commitment to allies.

There are clear red lines across which Iran can never cross, and these must be demarcated. The U.S. successfully pursued a long–term policy of dialogue and negotiation with the Soviet Union and it finally worked. We should follow that model in dealing with Iran.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)