With realistic caution about the prospects of success, the Bush administration is giving diplomacy a chance in its quest to curb Iran's suspected nuclear weapons ambitions.
The reasons are several.
Spearheading the current diplomatic negotiations with Iran are the Europeans - Britain, France, and Germany on behalf of the European Union - with a new round scheduled to begin Wednesday. While the Europeans have sometimes been considered by the Bush administration to be weak sisters in international negotiations, on Iran they are exhibiting some unity and mettle. They want an end to Iran's uranium-enrichment program, which Iran says is for innocent civilian purposes, but which most Western nations fear is for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons. The unpredictability of the Tehran regime, and its constant endorsement of terrorism, make it a worrisome potential keeper of a nuclear arsenal.
While the US has been skeptical about the Europeans' negotiations, it has agreed to support them in return for a European agreement to take the issue before the United Nations Security Council if the negotiations fail. The US cooperation with the Europeans on Iran is also in line with the Bush administration's general desire for better overall relations with its European allies.
From the American point of view, diplomacy is currently a more prudent course than more muscular efforts, such as the use of force, in an attempt to dissuade Iran from pursuing the nuclear option. A US military invasion of Iran is not in the cards. American public opinion would be hard to rally in support.
While there is admiration for the US among many younger Iranians, they are also strong nationalists and a US invasion would likely trigger a tsunami of anti-Americanism.
Internationally, following the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there is lingering doubt about the credibility of US intelligence estimates where such countries as Iran are concerned. A complication is the uncertainty in the Bush administration itself over just how far along a secretive and duplicitous Iranian regime is in the development of a nuclear bomb, or bombs.
The thrust of the Europeans' diplomacy so far has been to trail the promise of economic inducements in front of Iran in return for an agreement to abandon its nuclear program. Iran did agree to a temporary freeze during negotiations, but has firmly rejected a permanent ban. Claiming "rightful access to nuclear technology," it says it is willing to consider "objective guarantees" about the use to which it would put such technology. Given the regime's past duplicity, those "guarantees" would necessarily be looked upon with suspicion.
Some US experts think the timing might be opportune for Iran to modify its policy. Its meddling in the region has suffered setbacks. In Lebanon the Syrians are retreating and Hizbullah, which has been a favored instrument of Iranian influence, may be diminished in power. The forces of freedom are taking hold in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Europeans have formed a common front against Iran on the nuclear issue, with even the French throwing in their weight. The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency is asking awkward questions about facilities and equipment that could be used for making nuclear bombs, and Iran's past dissembling about them.
If Iran cares about its image in the international community, it is sitting out on a rather lonely limb. Its decisionmaking is complicated by acute internal problems. The rule of the mullahs over the economy has been inept and corrupt. State-owned enterprises are hopelessly inefficient. Each year hundreds of thousands of the under-30 generation enter the job market with little hope of employment.
In the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Iran-watchers Kenneth Pollack and Ray Takeyh posit that Iran's hard-line leadership is badly fragmented over key foreign policy issues, including the importance of nuclear weapons.
At one end of the spectrum are the hardest of the hard-liners, who "disparage economic and diplomatic considerations and put Iran's security concerns ahead of all others. At the opposite end are pragmatists, who believe that fixing Iran's failing economy must trump all else if the clerical regime is to retain power over the long term."
If the European negotiators starting another round of discussions with Iran are to be successful, the pragmatists in the Iranian regime who believe their country needs jobs more than nuclear weapons must hold sway. Skillful diplomacy is requisite, but it is the Iranians who will determine the outcome.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.