American advocates of military or other tough action against Iran have based their case on the argument that its hard-line government’s pursuit of a nuclear program constitutes a grave threat to peace and stability worldwide. In reality, the development of a nuclear program is mostly a matter of national pride. A U.S. military strike against Iran, even if executed successfully, would unite Iranians and further isolate America in the international arena. A sanctions regime, including a travel ban on Iranian officials, would yield few benefits and is not likely to stop Iran from developing its nuclear program. Sanctions did not prevent North Korea from testing a nuclear device in October 2006.
What is required in Iran’s case is a psychological breakthrough between Washington and Tehran, an engagement of Iranian leaders over a range of issues—and a new strategy of deterrence in the event Iran develops a bomb. A U.S. policy based on carrots and sticks would be more effective in managing Iran’s growing power in the Middle East as well as its regional and nuclear ambitions.
Iran today is very different from the embattled Islamic Republic of the early 1980s, with a widespread women’s movement and a young generation of educated Iranians clamoring for reform and greater contacts with the West. The hard-liners in Tehran know that they will not benefit from a full-scale civil war in Iraq, which could destabilize the Persian Gulf and undermine Iran’s interests in the region. Hence they may be receptive to a détente with America in exchange for a grand bargain. If there is to be a deal with the current regime, it will have to be made not only with the reformers, but also with the more powerful conservative politicians and clerics in Iran.
This reality should not be obscured by the unfortunate denial of the Holocaust by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or by his outrageous statements that Israel should be wiped off the map—rhetoric that allowed him to occupy center stage in the Middle East. Ahmadinejad is not a messianic madman. Nor is he a Shiite version of Saddam Hussein, who launched two devastating wars in the Persian Gulf in the name of Arabism, or of Osama bin Laden, who declared jihad against America and the West in the name of Islam. Instead, he is a radical populist who has allied himself with a coalition of third world leaders, including Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, all of whom have capitalized on the general resentment against the world’s strongest power in the non-Western world. Ahmadinejad’s government may yet turn out to be the least religious in orientation that Iran has had since the start of the revolution. And should his socioeconomic policies fail to improve the living conditions of the poor classes in Iran, whose members voted for him overwhelmingly in 2005, he could lose office in the next elections.
Washington and Tehran would need to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and begin a ...
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