Dealing with Iran: Confrontation or Negotiation?

Article excerpt

The Bush administration's deliberate policy of avoiding a genuine diplomatic initiative to address tortured U.S.-Iran relations is slowly proceeding along what may soon become an irreversible collision course. Washington's belligerent rhetoric has heightened in the aftermath of the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment, a non-binding resolution passed by the U.S. Senate on September 26, 2007. The resolution, which designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group suspected of proliferating weapons of mass destruction, arguably provides a back door for the Bush administration to start a war against Iran at will. Put simply, the resolution means that the administration could bypass the Congressional approval usually required for an attack if the president so desires. (1)

The Kyl-Lieberman Amendment was viewed in Tehran as a clear signal that Washington had paved the way toward war. The nuclear debate between Iran on the one hand and Germany, France, and UK and Javier Solana (also known as the E3/EU) on the other was based on keeping the talks going by not rejecting, but rather constantly assessing and initiating new proposals whenever setback occurs. Time and confidence building were two distinguishing features of the European strategy. (2) While the E3/EU had invested too much effort and prestige in these negotiations to lose reputation by failing, Iranian negotiating team was equally searching for the right formula, albeit from a more aggressive standpoint, to prevent the talks from faltering. (3) The Kyl-Lieberman Amendment shifted the focus from carrot to stick. Having lost its faith in diplomacy, the Ahmadinejad administration quickly consolidated its power with the resignation of Ali Larijani, Iran's key nuclear negotiator, who was replaced by Saeed Jalili, a hardliner more loyal to the current government. Following differences with President Ahmadinejad, Larijani resigned as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, but remained on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) helping to devise security strategies as one of two representatives of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In an interview with Financial Times after his resignation, he emphasized cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as being the cornerstone of Iran's strategy, while saying that if the talks were not based on the suspension of uranium as the pre-condition, many problems would have been resolved by now. (4) Larijani became the speaker of the parliament and vowed an active economic and nuclear oversight. He continues to be an institutional member of the SNSC now. How these power dynamics will play out remains uncertain, and it is an open question whether Iran's juggling of personnel will have a moderating or intensifying impact on a U.S. decision to go to war. What is clear, however, is that the possibility of war remains strong.

Nearly five years after the invasion of Iraq, U.S. troops are stuck in a quagmire and Iraq is sliding further into sectarian chaos. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of saber rattling and talk of attacking Iran. Before taking any such steps, however, a thorough assessment of the possible outcomes of a war with Iran is imperative, especially given such an action's wider implications for the future of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Indeed, a thorough assessment might well deter the U.S. from such a problematic course.

An attack on Iran would misdirect U.S. foreign policy onto a track that could only be viewed as a crusade against Islam, reinforcing the notion of a strict and violent dichotomy between the Muslim world and the West. Bush's rhetoric--warning that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons could result in World War III--relies on and reinforces such a sentiment. Although they may serve a domestic audience, such statements do not resonate well with the rest of the world. Within the transatlantic alliance, Europeans tend to view the United States as belligerent, simplistic, and insensitive to Islam--a view that is bound to undermine the alliance's unity. …