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An Opening to Iran

September 07, 2004

One of the three parts of President Bush's "axis of evil," Iraq, is chewing up U.S. money and troops. A second, North Korea, probably has nuclear weapons and shows no sign of giving them up. The third, Iran, is the one to which the Bush administration should be giving a lot more attention.

Unlike Iraq, where inspectors looked long and hard for weapons of mass destruction only to conclude they weren't there, Iran may indeed be seeking nuclear weapons. Unlike North Korea, Iran sits in a region through which about 40% of the world's oil flows.

Last week's report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, indicates that Iran may have stopped stonewalling nuclear inspectors; if so, this provides an opening for diplomacy rather than more saber rattling. Iran's purge of political moderates this year and probable dishonesty about its nuclear weapons program make it a difficult nation for the U.S. to deal with, especially considering the poisoned relationship that has lasted for a quarter-century. But what is Washington's alternative? Regime change? Preemption? Those cards are off the table, thanks to the Iraq folly. The only reasonable path is to attempt to persuade Tehran's leaders that they would be better off scrapping atomic weapons in exchange for expanded trade and regional stability.

With the demise of Iranian reformers in February's elections, the U.S. and its allies should deal with the only rulers left. At least the ruling mullahs are pragmatic conservatives who can deliver on their promises.

They also are likely to stick around. The American strategy on Iran seems to involve covert efforts to foment a revolution, judging from an ongoing FBI investigation. At the center of that probe is a classified document allegedly passed to Israel by a Pentagon analyst that reportedly advocated support for Iranian dissidents and radio broadcasts intended to destabilize the Iranian regime. Yet a Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored task force concludes in a July report that Iran is not on the verge of another revolution. Washington is delusional if it insists on waiting for the regime to collapse and the accession of democrats acceptable to the United States.

In the last decade, Tehran has improved relations with Persian Gulf neighbors such as Bahrain, Oman and other Gulf Cooperation Council members. It also has expanded trade with other nations. Washington should be cheering those developments, not trying to find government foes to back. The U.S. experience with Ahmed Chalabi, once thought to be a credible Iraqi opposition leader but now branded a Washington enemy, should demonstrate the difficulty in determining who has support inside a country with which ties were cut long ago.

Iran has good reason to welcome better relations with the U.S. Its per capita income has decreased by an estimated one-third since the 1979 revolution; high oil prices have helped this year, but the price probably won't stay above $40 a barrel forever. Tehran needs much more foreign investment but is unlikely to get it if investors worry about the threat of invasion by U.S. troops in two next-door neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iran also has shown flashes of cooperation with Washington. It rejoiced when the Taliban was booted from power in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein was dethroned in Iraq; Tehran supported the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council last year and offered to provide water, electricity and technical help. But the picture has become less clear in recent months, with Iraqis charging that Iran is funding insurgents.

More important for the long term is what Iran will accept to forgo nuclear weapons. Britain, France and Germany thought they had the start of a deal to help Iran develop nuclear energy if it scrapped them. But Tehran goes back and forth on cooperating with the IAEA. When caught cheating with centrifuges or enriching uranium, Iran denies all, but eventually and defiantly owns up to the truth. Iran insists it just wants nuclear power plants, despite its ample oil reserves, and a nuclear program has been a constant goal from the time of the shah. Last week's report from the IAEA said Iran was cooperating in many areas but still had not supplied all the information requested. In the past, Iran has hidden its research at several sites and not come clean on its development of machines that enrich uranium for use in nuclear reactors.

Washington has carrots to offer Iran, most notably the same promise it has made to North Korea: It will not attack. It also can hold out the eventual removal of the embargo on trade with Tehran if it cooperates with international inspectors. The U.S. can stand aside as Iran seeks to join the World Trade Organization as well -- again, if Tehran cooperates. On the other side is the stick of U.N.-authorized sanctions if Tehran balks.

As is true in the Middle East, North Korea and most areas of the globe, U.S. intervention is needed to move diplomacy forward. The administration has wasted months when it could have been talking with Iran to try to determine the regime's intentions. Each delay gives Tehran more time to develop nuclear weapons. If it succeeds, neighbors such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia could travel the same path.

Stopping the spread of nuclear weapons should top the administration's foreign policy agenda. Iran is the place to start.

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