Time to Engage Iran?

Iran does not want a clash with the United States. And unlike Milosevic and Saddam, neither of whom wanted a war, either, Iran is determined not to give the neoconservatives the pretext to launch one.

This is behind Tehran’s grudging acceptance of the British-French-German initiative to arrest Iran’s nuclear program by forcing a shutdown of its facilities for enriching uranium. Iran claims the fuel was to be used in power plants. America says – and Europe fears – that any Iranian facility that enriches uranium for power plants could also be used to enrich uranium for atom bombs.

As of today, there is no hard evidence that Iran has a bomb or the fissile material to build one, or the operating facilities to produce the plutonium or highly enriched uranium needed to create one. But there are reasons to believe Iran is entertaining a nuclear option.

First, its nuclear program had been kept secret. Second, given what happened to neighboring Iraq, the mullahs, in facing President Bush, might well prefer the nuclear ambiguity of a North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il to the nuclear nakedness of a Saddam Hussein.

Third, Iran is surrounded by nuclear neighbors, many of them hostile. U.S. forces are in Turkey, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and Afghanistan. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, as does India. Russia, which occupied northern Iran after World War II, is a great nuclear power, as is China. Israel, which has threatened to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, has hundreds of nuclear weapons.

But there are also arguments for Iran’s not going nuclear. While having a bomb might deter some enemies, to be caught secretly building one could provoke Israel or the Americans into a preemptive strike, and the Saudis and Turks into building their own bombs. How would that make Iran more secure?

However, if Iran would suffer grievously in a war with the United States – losing its nuclear facilities, navy, and air force, and being set back years – it is hard to see how America would benefit.

U.S. strikes would likely unite the Iranians behind the regime, and retaliation might come in the form of “volunteers” for a Shia uprising in Iraq and attacks on U.S. interests across the Middle East. Pro-American governments could be destabilized and an oil boycott imposed that could send prices to $70 or $80 a barrel.

But if neither we nor Iran would benefit from war between us, is there common ground on which we might stand to attain a cold peace?

Indeed, there is. Iran has already benefited from the U.S. ouster of the detested Taliban and Saddam, and it would surely not object to a Shi’ite government in Baghdad. And we both have a vital interest in a Persian Gulf kept open. Yet, the conflicts between us cannot be minimized.

First, the Iranian revolution is a failure, having created neither a great nor universally respected nation. Unlike the French Revolution, it has been unable to export or replicate itself. Twenty-five years after the fall of the shah, no nation looks to Iran as a model or inspiration. Twice, Iranians have voted in landslides for reformers to ameliorate mullah rule.

But while Tehran has an incentive to integrate the nation into the modern world, any such integration would dilute revolutionary purity and zeal, and could further estrange the regime from the people.

What makes détente with America almost impossible is that the ayatollah’s revolution was as much anti-American as anti-Shah. Enmity toward the “Great Satan” legitimizes the regime. But should America suddenly no longer be an enemy, but a partner, Iran’s people might ask: Why not open our country up to tourism, trade, and cultural contact with America? For communist Europe, that was the end.

What are the elements of coexistence between us?

Return to Iran of the billions she is owed by the United States, an end to U.S. sanctions and an invitation into the World Trade Organization. For America, it would require an end to Iran’s sponsorship of terror, cooperation in Iraq, and restraint on Hizbollah as we try to broker a peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

As for its nuclear program, the United States could ensure Iran’s access to peaceful nuclear power in return for a verifiable agreement not to build nuclear weapons. The problem? Iran may believe having a bomb is a better guarantor of her security than any U.S. promise. And, frankly, who could blame them?

As for the neocons’ insistence on “regime change” in Iran, that is a deal-breaker, which is why Israel and the neocons have made it their non-negotiable demand. They don’t want a deal. They want a war.

But what is best for America?

Author: Patrick J. Buchanan

Patrick Buchanan is the author of Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War."