Politics & Policy

The Diplomatic Dance Won’t Do

The sorry state of world Iran policy.

Another month, another diplomatic reprieve for the Islamic Republic of Iran. On Thursday, the board of governors of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, will meet for what many had hoped would be a decisive step toward curbing Iran’s runaway nuclear ambitions. But already, all the signs suggest that the summit is shaping up to be anything but.

Back in September, the IAEA had shown unexpected backbone when it ruled that Iran’s diplomatic “rope-a-dope” with the international community over its nuclear program warranted referral to the U.N. Security Council. In its September 24th resolution, the IAEA board expressed concern over “Iran’s motives” and declared lingering questions over the Iranian nuclear program to be “within the competence of the Security Council.” But the IAEA stopped short of recommending immediate referral, opting instead to reconvene to consider further steps. The unspoken hope was that, in the interim, Iran could still be diplomatically muscled into accepting some sort of atomic deal.

The Iranian regime wasted no time in proving the IAEA wrong. In recent weeks, Iran’s new hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has definitively put to rest the question of whether an atomic Iran would be a proliferation threat, publicly announcing his government’s intention to share nuclear technology with any number of nations in the Muslim world. Ignoring international entreaties, Iran has also begun processing a new batch of uranium ore for enrichment purposes. Most recently, Iran’s parliament, the Majles, defiantly passed a resolution endorsing still more uranium enrichment and threatening to effectively suspend cooperation with the IAEA if a Security Council referral should take place.

Predictably, the IAEA has ignored these provocations. Secretary-General Mohamed ElBaradei has reportedly urged member states to give Iran “one last chance” to cooperate with the international community, throwing his weight behind a new proposal to Iran to conduct uranium enrichment in Russia. And now, there are signs that the United States and Europe are doing just that, backing away from plans to push for immediate Security Council referral at the board meeting Thursday in order to give the Russian government time to persuade its long-time strategic partner to accept the new enrichment deal.

This diplomatic dance provides a revealing glimpse into the sorry state of international policy toward Iran. Since mid-2003, Europe has been engaged in a series of halting, haphazard talks with Tehran over its nuclear program. This dialogue, aimed at securing a lasting Iranian freeze on uranium enrichment, is long on diplomatic and economic carrots but alarmingly devoid of strategic sticks. Yet over time, it has become the principal international vehicle for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Even Washington, for lack of a better strategy, has signed on to this approach, endorsing Europe’s deeply deficient nuclear diplomacy as the best method to defuse the Iranian threat.

The outcome is deeply disturbing. After all, the reasons for concern over a nuclear Iran have little if anything to do with Iran’s nuclear program itself. Rather, they stem from the nature of the regime that will ultimately wield those capabilities. It is the current Iranian regime’s intimate relationship with international terrorism, and its potential for catastrophic proliferation, that will make a nuclear Islamic republic a truly global threat.

Unfortunately, for both the United States and Europe, diplomatic negotiations have become a substitute for serious strategy. To be sure, diplomacy can certainly help to deter and contain Iran’s nuclear drive. But ultimately, if European and American policymakers are serious about neutralizing the dangers posed by an atomic Islamic Republic, they must also focus their energies upon spurring a fundamental transformation of that regime.

The means to do so exist. All that has been lacking so far has been the political will.

Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. and author of Tehran Rising.

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