The international standoff over Iran’s nuclear program is coming to a head. In the near future, either Tehran will agree to the demands of the U.S.-led coalition that has tightened economic sanctions and declared a nuclear-armed Iran unacceptable, or Washington will eat its words about containment not being an option and learn to live with an Iran that will one day be able to put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile. Each day that passes without a resolution of this potential catastrophe increases the risk of the U.S. and/or Israel launching a futile preventive military strike against Iran, which would lead to ever greater support by Tehran for Hezbollah, the Assad regime in Syria, and other nasty characters.
Add to this the upcoming Iranian presidential election, which may feature a repeat of the bloody suppression of the reformist Green movement four years ago. The fact that this year’s candidates have been carefully vetted by the Iranian religious leadership does not mean that the Iranian people are any more satisfied with their country’s state of affairs than they were in 2009. While there is little any outside power can do to influence the outcome of the election, the world’s democracies will doubtless feel pressure to speak out against the Iranian regime should any repressive violence occur, potentially setting prospects for resolution of the nuclear issue even further back.
But there is a step the U.S. can take that just might resolve the standoff: In exchange for Iran giving up the pursuit of nuclear weapons technology and verifiably severing all links to terrorist groups, offer diplomatic recognition to the Islamic Republic.
In today’s Washington, this idea is, of course, completely ruled out by most people. Why, it is argued, should the U.S. lend legitimacy to people who have sacked its embassy, sponsored terrorist attacks on its military, and denounced it as “the great Satan”? The idea would naturally be overwhelmingly rejected in Israel, the country Iran’s Holocaust-denying outgoing president has said should be wiped off the map. But while these concerns are certainly legitimate, they overlook two simple truths.
First, rhetoric should not be mistaken for practical policy. Those who equate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel and anti-Western statements with Adolf Hitler’s stated goals that he later attempted to achieve should remember the many differences between Europe in the 1930s and the Middle East today. Then, Nazi Germany was among the world’s strongest military powers, and the countries that could have confronted Hitler were usually too concerned with internal affairs to pay much attention to him. Today, as strong as Iran’s military may be, its capacities are dwarfed by those of Israel, the only Middle Eastern country that possesses nuclear weapons (whether Jerusalem admits it or not). Any serious attempt by Iran to destroy the Jewish state would surely be met with overwhelming military retaliation not just by Israel, but by the U.S. as well. The leaders of Iran may be religious zealots, but they are also responsible for the well-being of their people, and have no rational incentive to start a war that would surely result in the destruction of their country.
Second, diplomatic recognition of a government is hardly the same thing as agreement with its actions. To take just one example, the U.S. today has many disputes with China, yet unless a war between the two powers actually broke out, any attempt by either country to break off relations would be downright foolish. And China is in a far better position than Iran to pose serious threats to American security interests. One could argue that Washington has no choice but to engage with Beijing, China being as powerful as it is. But that reasoning implies that diplomatic engagement should be a function of how much a country feels threatened by another, rather than a way to resolve conflicts peacefully whenever possible, whether the parties involved feel threatened or not.
A “grand bargain” between the U.S. and Iran that included mutual diplomatic recognition would have to include two major concessions on Tehran’s part. It would have to agree to completely open all Iranian nuclear facilities to regular inspections by the IAEA (which it has thus far refused to do), to ensure that none of them are used for military purposes. Iran would also have to agree to stop providing material support to Hamas, Hezbollah, and other militant or terrorist organizations. The actual severing of such links will not be easy to verify, but the best indicator is whether or not Israeli intelligence reports reveal that Iranian-made weapons keep appearing on Israel’s borders. (To assuage Israel’s continued security concerns, the U.S. should continue to assist Israel in improving defensive measures like the Iron Dome missile defense system.)
In return, the U.S. would gradually lift its economic sanctions on Iran, and press the United Nations to do the same. Washington would also make a formal declaration of its policy toward the Islamic Republic, one that rejects forced regime change while still calling on the Iranian government to respect democracy and human rights. This would serve two purposes: providing Iran’s leaders with the security guarantee they seek, and letting the Iranian people know that their fate is in their own hands, and that the U.S. will support their quest for greater freedom without pushing them in a particular direction.
In the short term, merely an offer of détente from the U.S. to Iran could help to demoralize Bashar Al-Assad, Tehran’s closest ally, and Hezbollah, as they brutally try to suppress opposition to Assad’s rule. It can also serve to undermine Iranian political hardliners who try to whip up anti-American sentiments, and empower those who, while they may not exactly like Israel or the U.S., do not see either country as an eternal enemy. In the long term, an actual resumption of direct diplomacy can go a long way toward defusing one of the world’s most pressing security threats.
As President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu consider using force to halt Iran’s nuclear program, they should bear in mind the wise words of John F. Kennedy: “Never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate.” Obama, in particular, should also begin to think about his legacy: Does he want to go down in history as the president who led the U.S. into a futile war with Iran, or as the president who, in the face of great criticism, courageously took the first step toward resolution of a situation that, had the status quo been maintained, could easily have ended in disaster?