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Defusing Iran

There's no simple solution to dealing with Tehran's nuclear plans. But diplomacy is the best bet.

October 01, 2009

Preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is a bit like achieving peace between the Israelis and Palestinians -- the steps we need to take are fairly obvious, but actually getting them done is all but impossible.

The United Nations has imposed three rounds of weak sanctions against Iran, all of them watered down by Russia and China, Tehran's allies on the Security Council. Today, those two countries, along with the United States, Britain, France and Germany, will meet with Iranian representatives in Geneva to try to discourage Tehran's nuclear ambitions. A positive outcome is unlikely.

Most responsible nations have recognized for decades that a two-state solution has the best chance to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in a feud in which reason is often secondary to faith, neither side is seriously pursuing it. By the same token, both Russia and China surely know that a nuclear-armed Iran is not in their interest, and that strong sanctions such as a ban on Iranian oil exports or refined gasoline imports could force Iran to the bargaining table. Yet such sanctions would also wreak significant economic harm on Russia and China. Moreover, a hostile Iran could arm Muslim separatists and foment unrest, especially in and near Russia.

Faced with the reality that diplomacy has borne little fruit so far, and that bombing Iran's nuclear sites would inflame the Middle East while probably only slowing Tehran's nuclear quest, pundits across the political spectrum are giving bad advice to President Obama. On the right, critics attack the president's attempts to negotiate directly with the regime and urge him to talk tougher, yet few reveal what that's supposed to accomplish. Eight years of that strategy under President George W. Bush not only failed to resolve the nuclear crisis but strengthened President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose defiance of Bush was wildly popular at home. On the left, Obama has been accused of not being accommodating enough, with some urging the president to offer Tehran various incentives with no strings attached, as President Nixon did when he opened diplomatic relations with China in the 1970s. This ignores the nature of Iran's revolutionary regime, which defines itself by its opposition to the U.S.; there's little reason to think appeasement would change that, or end its desire to be a member of the world's nuclear club.

We still think diplomacy can succeed, and that carrots and sticks, applied in the right balance to the right countries and combined with a resurgent Iranian opposition movement, can head off the prospect of a nuclear-armed Tehran. But in case they don't, the world needs a contingency plan for containing the atomic mullahs.

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