How to Make Tehran Blink; the Best Way to Prevent a Nuclear Iran Is for America to Offer the Kind of Security Assurances That Might Reduce Support for a Nuclear Arsenal

Article excerpt

Byline: Scott D. Sagan (Sagan is professor of political science and director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.)

Given Tehran's defiant response to the European and American effort to constrain its nuclear program, it is time for bolder diplomacy out of Washington. U.S. President George W. Bush should take a page from the playbook of Ronald Reagan, who negotiated with an evil Soviet regime--competing in the war of ideas, but addressing the enemy's security concerns through arms-control agreements.

Iran's intransigence is both deeply unfortunate and perfectly predictable. It is unfortunate because Tehran's refusal to suspend its uranium-enrichment operations immediately--as demanded in July by the U.N. Security Council in a legally binding resolution--suggests that Iran is moving more quickly than expected toward a nuclear-weapons capability. Tehran has now turned the nuclear crisis into a test of the whole U.N. Security Council system. And Russia and China's current position, threatening to veto any biting sanctions against Iran, suggests that the Security Council may well fail this crucial test.

Tehran's response is predictable, however, because the offer on the table contains both inadequate economic carrots and barely credible threats of sanctions and military force. The carrots appeared impressive at first glance--in return for a suspension of enrichment we reportedly promised to provide light-water nuclear reactors and to help Iran with civil aviation and telecommunications technology. But we did not offer the one incentive that might possibly work, security guarantees that could reduce Iran's desire for nuclear weapons.

This omission is striking. The Iranian government can't talk openly about their security concerns because that would blow their cover story that the nuclear program is only for energy production. And Washington does not want to discuss such worries because it wants to keep open the possibility of removing the regime by force. "Security assurances are not on the table," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice too cleverly argued this spring: "It is a little strange to talk about security guarantees ... I thought the Iranian position was that they weren't developing a nuclear bomb."

This is partly a crisis of our own making, as the Bush administration has practiced the reverse of Teddy Roosevelt's maxim--speaking loudly and carrying a small stick. Think about how Tehran reacted when Bush stated (in his second Inaugural Address), "The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: 'Those who deny freedoms to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it. …