Attempts since 2002 to roll back or at least slow Iran's nuclear ambitions have proven fruitless, imparting a sense of urgency to the issue. Neither threats of punishment nor inducements have worked. Instead, threats unify Iranians behind an unloved regime while inducements threaten the regime's foundations, which are built on hostility to the world, embattlement, and ''resistance.'' In addition, Iran fears the U.S./West's friendship more than its enmity.
The dilemma today for the United States is that neither the military nor the diplomatic track appears likely to yield results soon. This dilemma is further accentuated since the June 12, 2009 elections highlighted the fractures in Iranian elite, as well as society, and the current regime's sickening repression of the public. The elections also brought forth the regime's newfound interest in at least tactically engaging the West, as in Geneva in October 2009. By engagement, the regime not only hopes to deflect external pressures, but also to gain a measure of legitimacy and to dishearten its political opponents.
Yet, contrary to conventional thinking, Iran's nuclear policy has never been publicly debated and has never enjoyed a national consensus beyond the broad, trite slogan of a ''right to technology.'' Divisions on the nuclear question exist and are in fact a surrogate for a broader question: how should Iran relate to the international community? Differences exist between those who seek a larger role for Iran in the international community as a normal state, accommodating international concerns, and those who wish to acquire a nuclear weapons capability to continue to confront the West, but with an ''equalizer.''
While the Obama administration should at least sound out Tehran, it should be under no illusions about the tactical nature of Iran's current response. Washington should bear in mind that there exist moderate Iranian nationalists who wish to normalize relations with the world on the basis of mutual respect. They are likely to be a more reliable interlocutor, creating a government more plural, responsible, open, tolerant, and trustworthy, and thus partners for a durable and comprehensive agreement. This implies a renewed emphasis by the United States on public diplomacy, informing the Iranian people of the continuing U.S. interest in the fate of democracy, standards of human rights, and establishment of the rule of law in Iran, as elsewhere.
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About the author: Shahram Chubin is a nonresident senior associate of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is based in Geneva. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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