How should the U.S. deal with Iran’s nuclear ambition? No one in the Obama administration will say this out loud, so allow me to play ventriloquist: we’ll just have to get used to it.
In a region that already boasts three nuclear-weapons states (Pakistan, India and Israel), Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon is inevitable. And contrary to prevailing opinion, an Iranian bomb would not be sufficiently destabilizing to justify the enormous political and military costs of preventing it. Indeed, the main problem Iran poses to the U.S. is not its nuclear program, but the difficulty of integrating Iran into the web of relationships the U.S. maintains with Iran’s neighbors and U.S. strategic partners in the region. That integration will not be achieved through continued isolation of the clerical regime. Instead, we must use our relationships with Iran’s existing partners to reach an accommodation with Tehran -- one that acknowledges the regime’s security interests while establishing barriers to nuclear proliferation.
After Pakistan and India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, the U.S. tried to punish both nations with sanctions. But following 9/11, Washington needed their cooperation, even going so far as to negotiate a major deal on nuclear technology exchange and monitoring with India. As a result, U.S.-Indian ties are stronger than ever. Washington will similarly have to accept an Iranian nuclear program, just as it came to accept the Pakistani and Indian arsenals. A negotiated deal like the one reached with India, featuring guarantees that Iran will not provide technical assistance to other regimes or non-state actors, would provide safeguards against proliferation while assuring Iran that it can develop its nuclear program without fear of attack.
This course will entail other costs, of course. To provide assurances to Israel and our allies in the Gulf, and to prevent a regional nuclear arms race, the administration would likely have to extend the protection of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to all allies in the region, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested during her presidential campaign. Even if some elements of the Iranian government would seriously contemplate a nuclear strike on Israel, the certainty of U.S. retaliation would deter such an attack.
At the same time, Washington should provide an opening for Syria to make a separate deal with the U.S. and Israel, mediated through Turkey, which would distance Syria from Iran. Prior to the Gaza conflict, Israel and Syria were already working toward a deal. Nurturing a treaty between the two would be the best use of special envoy George Mitchell’s energies.
A better time to engage Tehran is unlikely to come for many years. Iran’s economic weakness and its desire for international prestige make the regime more willing to accommodate U.S. goals than many imagine. With its elections in June, Iran also has the potential to make a symbolic break with the past by turning out incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Meantime, Obama’s upcoming trip to Turkey – his first as president -- presents an opportunity to enlist Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan as an intermediary who can lay the basis for direct U.S. negotiations with Tehran.
Should it squander this opportunity, the Obama administration will come under increasing political pressure either to permit Israel to exercise the so-called “Osirak option” by bombing Iranian nuclear installations, or to take provocative actions against Iran itself. Such a course would prove ruinous to American interests in the Gulf and to Israel, as well. Iranian retaliation against Israel, Gulf allies and American bases, the possible closure of the Straits of Hormuz and skyrocketing oil prices would prolong the global recession and risk a regional war.
On Nowruz, the Iranian New Year’s Day, President Obama delivered a short video address to the Iranian government and nation in which he expressed his interest in better relations. The address included no specific mention of the contentious issues between Iran and the U.S., an omission that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, seized on in his public response: “They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice,” he said. While Khamenei’s response has led domestic critics to conclude that Obama’s conciliatory gesture was wasted, Khamenei has actually made clear that rapprochement is possible if Washington is willing to alter its policies. Obama’s gesture was a constructive one. But if there is no follow through on his offer of a “new beginning” with Iran, the two nations will remain on a path that leads almost certainly to disastrous conflict.