The EditorsAugust 18, 2008

The brinksmanship between the West and Iran over that country’s nuclear ambitions appeared to enter a new and dangerous phase earlier this month, when the Iranians did not accept the West’s latest offer to set aside further economic sanctions if the Iranians immediately stopped enriching uranium. Representatives of six Western nations had given Iran until Aug. 2 to reply to their offer. Iran allowed the deadline to pass, then responded 48 hours later with little that was new. In the interim it deployed a new long-range weapon it said was capable of striking U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. In return, the United States and its allies have said that they will pursue additional economic sanctions. Meanwhile, Israel, which fears that a nuclear Iran would wipe Israel off the map, continues to prepare its Defense Forces for a strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities.

Such an attack would be a catastrophe. Among other things, it is impractical, as an attack would likely only delay the Iranians, not stop them. The principal elements of Iran’s nuclear program are spread out among numerous locations and population centers, decreasing the likelihood that an Israeli strike would eliminate the nuclear threat and increasing the likelihood of Iranian civilian casualties. Also, an Israeli attack would invigorate Iranian nationalism, silence the moderate voices in Iranian politics and rally support for the Tehran regime. Lastly, Iran would almost certainly retaliate by striking targets in Israel and U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly by blockading the Strait of Hormuz, choking off the world’s oil supply. The Bush administration should make it clear to Israel that a military strike would be a perilous and unacceptable escalation.

Vigorous and inventive diplomacy is the best means of escape from the impasse. Additional economic sanctions may be effective, but only as part of a comprehensive diplomatic strategy. The good news is that the Bush administration, its foreign policy long held hostage by ideology, has at last adopted a more realistic approach. It wisely chose in July to send the State Department’s third-highest ranking official to Geneva for the first official face-to-face talks between the United States and Iran since the Carter administration. There are also reports that the State Department may open an interest section in Tehran, a first step on the long road to full diplomatic relations.

While these are encouraging signs, they are not enough. The Iranians are playing for time and perhaps awaiting the new U.S. president, who might make a better offer. Yet Israeli intelligence, sometimes more reliable than the C.I.A., estimates that Iran could make weapons-grade materials by 2010. The West, therefore, must act now; but first it must recognize that the invective emanating from Tehran is largely for Iranian domestic consumption or is intended to maximize its bargaining position. Most analysts, recognizing that this type of political posturing is Iran’s diplomatic modus operandi, believe that a deal is still possible. What the Iranians want more than anything else is respect and recognition of their national sovereignty and standing in the world. This means that any accommodation between the West and Iran will likely have to include a security guarantee—a promise that the West will not seek regime change in Tehran. Though such a guarantee is unpalatable given the regime’s human rights abuses and history of violence, it may be required to keep Iran nuclear-free.

Any effective diplomatic strategy will also include Iran’s neighbors. The upcoming visit of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Turkey, for example, is an opportunity to explore the possibility of Turkish mediation. Turkey, a majority Muslim state with a secular government that straddles Europe and the Middle East, may be the one government that has enough credibility with all the major parties to help effect a settlement. Turkey could also move quickly, insisting on direct negotiations without preconditions, a proposal more likely to be accepted by the parties if made by an intermediary.

Despite the political posturing and distant drumbeats for war from extremists in Tehran and even a few in Washington, a diplomatic settlement is still possible. It will require concessions from all sides. The West may need to abandon its zero-tolerance for uranium enrichment in favor of allowing the Iranians to enrich for peaceful purposes, governed by the requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ultimately, a settlement will also require the United States and its allies to commit themselves to rebuilding the nuclear nonproliferation regime, starting with the substantial reduction and eventual elimination of their own nuclear arsenals. Without such a commitment, the West will lack any credible claim to moral leadership in the cause of nuclear nonproliferation.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
12 years 11 months ago
Why do I get a sick feeling when I read this editorial? Is it because it sounds just like all the other news stories that pupport to present the facts and seem to offer a rational solution when in fact it all sounds like a "set up" for patience running out and military action to be taken (as a last step and out of frustration, of course). Excuse me, but could we have a reference to, say, this statement, "Yet Israeli intelligence, sometimes more reliable than the C.I.A., estimates that Iran could make weapons-grade materials by 2010." If this is just a figment of your intellect, then it is incontrovertible; 'sometimes' can be almost infinitely small and 'weapons-grade material' can be the radioactive americium-241 in your smoke detector. Not only that, but what does the CIA say? Maybe you could create a direct line to them too like you perhaps do have to Israeli intelligence? All kidding aside, this is too serious a matter to continue the discussion on the basis of inuendo and suspicion. "Just the facts, Mam."
Patrick Eicker
12 years 11 months ago
"Without such a commitment, the West will lack any credible claim to moral leadership in the cause of nuclear nonproliferation." We'll see about this moral equivocation if something nuclear happens in Israel or America. "What the Iranians want more than anything else is respect and recognition of their national sovereignty and standing in the world." Where'd you get this from? Ridiculous psycho-babble.
Richard Kemmer
12 years 11 months ago
Has anyone done some reading in history? This looks like it was written by Nevill Chamberlain in 1938. What is next? "Peace in Our Time"? The problem with this article is that the author is almost a pacifist, always expecting that, contrary to all evidence and public statement, Iran is a peaceful country led by statesmen and diplomats. Hello, have we not seen this before? Was Adolph Hitler not just an assertive reformer in Germany who wanted to rebuild his country. Moreover, it is mighty easy for writers cloistered in their offices in NYC to be so smug when they do not live on the front lines in Tel Aviv. This is beyond unrealism.
12 years 11 months ago
Neville Chamberlain believed he could negotiate with evil.
12 years 11 months ago
AMEN! Is it hubris? hypocracy? or just plain old stupidity? If find all this "me" but not "you" talk about Iran and nuclear capability almost funny. But in the end, it is just sad. Where is the corresponding talk about Israel, its nuclear capabilities already in place and its demonstrated propensity to preemptively attack its neighbors? I think that Israel is a far bigger threat to the peace and stability of the Fertile Crescent than any Arab or Muslim entity. [Witness Israel's arming Georgia against those who want to be free of its territorial demands.] And the insane US support for Israel is more a part of the problem than a part of the solution. It is time for the US to rethink its global policies and international behavior. It is time to establish the cabinet level Department of Peace.
12 years 11 months ago
To capitulate to Ahmadinejad will have grave repercusions for the fate of the Free World. It is true, that strategically, it is difficult to strike at the facilities, in question. However, under that rationale we should not do anything and just wish that pie in the sky rhetoric will magically change the Barbaric nature of the Mullahs, and radical Islamo-Fascism in the interim. Sounds like a Cartersque (read Obama) foreign policy to me...

The latest from america

How do we see our grandparents and elderly persons? When was the last time we visited or telephoned an elderly person in order to show our closeness and to benefit from what they have to tell us?
Pope FrancisJuly 26, 2021
Pope Francis has said that women should have the same rights as men in the workforce. Soccer player Megan Rapinoe, right, has testified in front of Congress for equal pay for women (photo: CNS/AP/America).
For modern interpreters of Catholic social teaching, there is little question that women deserve equal pay. It has not always been so.
John W. MillerJuly 26, 2021
While Catholic organizations have stepped up their efforts to help those experiencing homeless during this summer’s heat wave, they are also preparing for what might be an even greater crisis.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJuly 26, 2021
APSA’s budget summary, made public for the first time, offered a glimpse into the Vatican’s investments and real estate holdings, which often have been shrouded in mystery and subject to much speculation.