The United States’s double-vision in Iran

Trita Parsi
8 May 2006

For the last five years, the George W Bush administration has often been accused of lacking an Iran policy. While all eyes were on Iraq, Washington did little to seriously address the challenge posed by Iran. More recently, however, Washington has overcompensated for these years of negligence by adopting not one, but two foreign policies on Iran: non-proliferation of nuclear materials, and regime change. The problem is that these policies tend to undermine each other in the short term and risk embroiling the United States in yet another war in the middle east.

This article is part of the openDemocracy debate "Iran: how to avoid war?"

Click here for an overview of this debate

As desirable as the goals of non-proliferation and regime change may be per se, they are contradictory in nature and will likely leave Washington achieving neither.

The regime-change policy brings with it two elements that undermine the non-proliferation goal and tend to increase the risk of a military conflict with Tehran rather than bringing closer Iran's peaceful democratisation.

First, it compels Washington to refuse direct negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear programme. This is against the advice of United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, International Atomic Energy Agency secretary-general Mohamed ElBaradei and European Union officials, who have all stated that a peaceful resolution is unlikely to be achieved unless the two principal actors in this equation – Iran and the US – negotiate directly.

Second, financial aid to exiled Iranian dissident groups (which may or may not include the terrorist-listed Mujahedin-e Khalq) as proposed in Condoleezza Rice's request to Congress for $85 million for democracy-promotion in Iran – erodes the little trust that is left between Iran and Washington and further undermines prospects for a peaceful conclusion to their nuclear dispute.

Trita Parsi is a middle-east specialist at Johns Hopkins University SAIS, where he was awarded a doctorate for his research on on Israeli-Iranian relations (the subject of a forthcoming book to be published by Yale University Press). His website is here

Also by Trita Parsi in openDemocracy:

"Iran's conservative triumph" (June 2006)

"The Iran-Israel cold war" (October 2005)

Washington's calculation may have been to increase the pressure on Iran from all directions, but it fails to appreciate the driving force behind Iran's nuclear ambition. Indeed, the current impasse over Iran's nuclear programme has been intertwined with the inequality of power between the two states. For many years, Iran has had to consider the real possibility of an American attack, and those fears – rather than Persian nationalism or Iranian pride – have been a key motivating factor behind Iran's quest for a nuclear option.

According to former CIA officials who participated in the preparation of national-intelligence estimates on Iran in the 1990s and since 2000, US intelligence experts have consistently concluded that Iran's fears of a US attack are a major contributing factor to its pursuit of the nuclear option. The Bush administration has unfortunately not taken those intelligence estimates into consideration.

America's no-diplomacy policy has already toughened Tehran's stance. The Bush administration's unwillingness to negotiate with the Mohammad Khatami government (1997-2005) after Iran's cooperation with America in Afghanistan has strengthened the hand of those in Tehran who argue that no Iranian policy change will be sufficient to satisfy Washington, and that Iran consequently has no choice but to prepare for what the Iranians see as a likely American military assault.

As Washington intensifies the pressure on Iran, and refuses to actively participate in the nuclear negotiations and starts channelling funds to dissidents, the Iranian perception of the threat from Washington will undoubtedly increase and prompt Tehran to cling onto whatever deterrences against the US it possesses or can develop. This, in turn, will be seen as a casus belli by hardliners in Washington.

Clearly, this does not bode well for America's non-proliferation objective, but neither does it advance the goal of democratisation as it increases the risk for a military showdown with Iran that undoubtedly will have profoundly negative effects on Iran's prospects for democracy.

Also in openDemocracy on the crisis involving Iran's nuclear research:

Tom Sauer, "Iran's nuclear-escalation ladder" (January 2006)

Paul Rogers, "The United States, nuclear weapons, and Iran"
(January 2006)

Nazenin Ansari, "Iranians on the freedom path" (February 2006)

Fred Halliday, "Iran vs the United States – again" (February 2006)

Bahram Rajaee, "Iran's nuclear challenge" (February 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Iran: war by October?"
(April 2006)

Kaveh Ehsani, "On the brink: the Great Satan vs the Axis of Evil"
(May 2006)

The choice

To resolve this dilemma, granted that war is not the ultimate objective, the duality of Washington's Iran policy must be made more refined.

As ideologically unattractive as multilateral talks with Iran may appear to the Bush White House, it must be recognised that the no-diplomacy policy has only aggravated the situation and made the chance of attaining Washington's policy objectives less likely. During this period, Iran has aggressively pursued nuclear technology and decreased Washington's manoeuvreability.

Indeed, if Washington had joined European Union states (Britain, France and Germany, the "EU3") in its negotiations with Iran from October 2003, Iran would likely not be enriching uranium today.

If the no-diplomacy policy is further pursued, Tehran will be gifted more time to present Washington with a nuclear fait accompli, which will leave the US in a much weaker position to change the dynamics of the nuclear stand-off and to promote democracy in Iran.

Opponents of multilateral talks have failed to present a compelling case for their position – instead, they tend to present the very problem sought to be resolved as an argument for not pursuing the most obvious solution.

Invoking Iran's aggressive rhetoric, its nuclear programme, theocratic nature or influence in Iraq as arguments not to join multilateral talks is self-defeating, as America's experience with Iran over the last few years has shown. Since other policy options have proven unsuccessful and since the stated preference is not to start a war, multilateral talks should be pursued precisely because that is the most likely way to resolve Washington's problems with Iran's rhetoric, its nuclear programme, its influence in Iraq and its lack of democracy.

Joining multilateral talks with Iran should neither be seen as a reward nor a concession. It is simply an appropriate policy modification put in place in order to successfully obtain the objectives of non-proliferation and democratisation in Iran.

If talks are not pursued, Washington risks trapping itself in a situation in which military action will be its only remaining option. That does not mean that war is inevitable, however. Diplomacy can still be given a chance. But forsaking diplomacy is increasingly tantamount to choosing war.

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