WRITING FROM JERUSALEM — Defying both history and logic, the idea that the West should diplomatically engage with Tehran still commands an important following.
Despite the massive waves of demonstrators across Iran who charged their government with rigging the June 12 presidential elections, there still are officials in the Obama ad- ministration who seem to believe that engagement with the Islamic Republic should "remain on the table," as columnist Roger Cohen put it in the New York Times Magazine this week. Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, agrees: "We would like very much that soon we will have the possibility to restart multilateral talks with Iran on the important nuclear issues," he said on June 24.
But they're wrong, just as they have been from the start. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about sticking to engagement. The main one is that it has already been tried -- and utterly failed. Iran has consistently used the West's willingness to engage as a delaying tactic, a smoke screen behind which Iran's nuclear program has continued undeterred and, in many cases, undetected.
Back in 2005, Hassan Rowhani, the former chief nuclear negotiator of Iran during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, made a stunning confession in an internal briefing in Tehran, just as he was leaving his post. He explained that in the period during which he sat across from European negotiators discussing Iran's uranium enrichment ambitions, Tehran quietly managed to complete the critical second stage of uranium fuel production: its uranium conversion plant in Isfahan. He boasted that the day Iran started its negotiations in 2003 "there was no such thing as the Isfahan project." Now, he said, it was complete.
Rowhani's revelation showed clearly how Iran exploited the West's engagement. Moreover, the Iranians violated their 2004 agreement with the EU and brilliantly dragged out further negotiations that followed. Equally important, they delayed Western punitive moves against them, keeping the U.N. Security Council at bay for years.
Mohammed Javad Larijani, a former deputy foreign minister and brother to Rowhani's successor as chief negotiator, admitted the logic of diplomatic engagement from the Iranian side: "Diplomacy must be used to lessen pressure on Iran for its nuclear program."
Advocates of engagement with Iran often use an unfair argument to advance their case: Their cause, they claim, is opposed mainly by Israel, which is pushing its own narrow agenda. True, Israel is a target of Iran, whose leadership calls for the "elimination of Israel from the region" -- to quote the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said this years before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So that there would be no confusion about Iranian intent, Khamenei's words were hung from a Shahab 3 missile in a military parade in 2003.
But Israel is not Iran's only target. If that was the case, the Iranians would have had no reason to develop missiles that fly well past Israeli territory to Central Europe and beyond.
In fact, the greatest engagement skeptics today are the leaders of the Sunni Arab states from Morocco to Bahrain. The Gulf states in particular have repeatedly been the targets of Iranian subversion operations. Bahrain was called the 14th province of Iran earlier this year by one of Khamenei's key advisors. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have been attacked by Iranian-backed Hezbollah operatives in the past. Iran still occupies islands belonging to the United Arab Emirates, close to the oil tanker routes that go through the Strait of Hormuz.
And Cairo just cracked a large Iranian-supported Hezbollah cell that was planning attacks on key economic centers in the Egyptian state.
For these reasons, Arab officials don't need prompting from Israel. Their common fear is that a nuclear Iran will embolden groups such as Hezbollah, which will feel it enjoys a nuclear sponsor protecting it from any retaliatory action. Unlike their Western counterparts, these Arab officials are savvy enough to distinguish between status quo states that just want to assure the security of their borders and ideologically driven revolutionary powers like Iran with expansive aims.
An Iran with hegemonial aspirations will not be talked out of acquiring nuclear weapons through a new Western incentives package. Only the most severe economic measures aimed at Iran's dependence on imported gasoline, backed with the threat of Western military power, might pull the Iranians back at the last minute. Until now, U.N. sanctions on Iran have been too weak to have any real impact.
It is critical to understand that an Iran that crosses the nuclear threshold after repeated warnings that doing so is "unacceptable" would be even less likely to be deterred in the future. It would provide global terrorism the kind of protective umbrella that Al Qaeda never had back on 9/11, including Hezbollah cells located at present in Central Europe and Latin America. Some Arab states, like Qatar, have already been largely "Finlandized," to borrow a Cold War term for states that make their foreign policy subservient to the wishes of a powerful neighbor. But as Iran's nuclear program continues unopposed, more Arab states will follow, changing the Middle East entirely.
Halting the Iranian nuclear program is a global imperative; acquiescing to a nuclear Iran in the hope that it will pragmatically understand the limits of its own power would be a colossal mistake.