Over the coming months, few Middle Eastern issues are likely to become more pressing than Iran’s nuclear program. Admitting only to the pursuit of civilian energy, the Iranians are now preparing to complete a heavy water reactor at Arak from which the fissile material for a warhead could be extracted, threatening to enrich uranium in spite of their earlier promises not to do so and continuing to play a game of cat and mouse with the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who have long shared Western suspicions of a secret military agenda.
So how best can the outside world thwart any such covert military program? The IAEA can refer any serious violation of Iran’s nuclear obligations to the UN Security Council, which can then impose economic sanctions. But while no one disputes the effectiveness of such sanctions on an economy highly dependent upon the export of oil, the Iranians also know the unlikelihood not only that the inspectors will have sufficient grounds to make such a reference but also that such drastic measures would ever be imposed: North Korea, which last year broke from the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty after building its own warhead, has hitherto evaded them.
The threat of economic sanction might instead be more effective if it stands alongside some other measures. A clear American acknowledgement that Tehran has legitimate security interests of its own would, for example, help the mullahs put aside their nuclear ambitions, even if it is an exaggeration to say that Iran wants a nuclear weapon just to deter any future aggressor: considerations of national prestige, for example, also come into play.
Washington could make just such an acknowledgement by withdrawing, or at least considerably scaling down, some of its regional military presence. After all, since 9-11 the American armed forces have effectively surrounded Iran by setting up bases and outposts in Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, as well as staging joint exercises in sensitive regions that are close to the Iranian border, notably with Azerbaijani troops in the oil-rich Caspian Sea last August. But in a “unipolar” world of unparalleled American dominance, it is arguable that these bases are best only at symbolizing U.S. "hegemony" and rallying the anti-American cause.
Washington also needs to answer Iranian accusations of influencing the nuclear watchdog, a perception that allows the mullahs immediately portray any IAEA condemnation as just a puppet-like response to U.S. pressure. An IAEA resolution that last week rapped Iran’s knuckles was based not on “technical grounds,” said Foreign Minister Kharrazi, but instead reflected “the political pressure of the United States,” which was “trying to charge the anti-Iranian atmosphere.” Such sentiments reflected the wider reaction of the hard-line Iranian press. The resolution, shouted a typical editorial, “had been prepared by the Americans and demonstrates that this agency is a tool in the hands of satanic powers.”
This perception could prove very damaging if, in the weeks ahead, the inspectors clash with Iranian officials over sensitive issues such as accessing particular sites, or if awkward facts are suddenly discovered. In such a scenario, Tehran might be tempted to retaliate against what they see as anti-Iranian bias, perhaps by suspending IAEA inspections, as they did for a few weeks earlier this year or, much more radically, by pulling out of the 1968 Nuclear Treaty altogether.
A fitting American response would not only quiet demands for UN sanctions but also avoid any unnecessary criticism of Iran that fosters the impression of implacable U.S. hostility. American administrators in Iraq could, for example, drop their frequent accusations about Iranian “interference,” none of which has been backed with evidence and most of which are at odds with the views of their British counterparts in the Shia areas where Iranian interference should be strongest.
For the same reason, the U.S. and the European powers will also need to tone down their rhetoric about human rights inside Iran, even if this may seem harsh in the wake of a shocking new report by Human Rights Watch. But the truth is that the outside world is powerless to influence Iran’s domestic policies, and that the EU’s policy of “critical dialogue,” which since 1995 has made Europe’s diplomatic and economic intercourse dependent upon discussion of human rights, has in fact achieved nothing: the legal ban in December 2002 upon the barbaric custom of stoning some criminals to death is trumpeted by diplomats as a triumph of the EU’s approach, but it is misleading since the practice was virtually dead in any case.
Any such focus on Iran’s dire human rights record instead fosters Iran’s paranoia and allows Western criticism of the matters that we can influence such as the nuclear issue to be portrayed as "a calculated conspiracy" against the Islamic Republic instead of legitimate concern for our own national interest.
Economic leverage on Iran may perhaps be enough to meet the nuclear challenge. But looking at the bigger picture will much improve its chances.