Friday, March 11, 2005

Carrots for Iran - More than meets the eye? 

It was announced today that the President has decided to support the three big EU countries (France, Germany, and the UK) in offering incentives to Iran in exchange for a promise to give up Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. I think there's more to the story than the "sharp shift in policy," as the Washington Post calls it. I'll get into that in a minute, but first the details:

President Bush has decided to back European allies in their plan to offer economic incentives to persuade Iran to abandon any effort to build nuclear weapons, a sharp shift in policy for a government that had long refused to bargain for Tehran's cooperation, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced today.

The decision, reported in a statement released by the State Department, culminates an intense negotiation over recent weeks that brought U.S. and European leaders together in their approach to Iran after a long split. By agreeing to try incentives first, U.S. officials believe they will later gain European support for taking the matter to the U.N. Security Council if talks fail.
Some of the implications of this deal are obvious. First, it's a chance to mend fences with Europe by coming over to their side of the issue. Second, it's a chance to present a united front to Iran as the EU and US adopt a common policy.

But here's where I break with some of the more hawkish commentators who believe that the deal is an unnecessary risk. I see three possible outcomes in the near term, each of them a no-lose situation for the United States.

1) Iran promises to halt nuclear weapons research and uranium enrichment. Then, Iran actually does as promised. This accomplishes the administration's goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. I consider this the least likely outcome.

2) Iran promises to halt nuclear weapons research and uranium enrichment. Then, Iran breaks the promise, and refuses unfettered IAEA inspections, while foreign intelligence services continue to observe indications of continued activity. In this case, the US can say to the EU, "We tried doing it your way, and it didn't work. Now it's time try our way." EU opposition to sanctions would be hard to maintain under these circumstances. If the EU tried to oppose sanctions, they would be revealed as the cynical underminers of US policy that they are.

3) Iran does not promise to halt its programs. In this case there would be absolutely no rational basis for the EU to oppose sanctions.

Either way, we win. Either the goal of a nuclear-free Iran is achieved, or the EU's day in the sun as a Western policy leader will effectively be over and the US will have more leeway to pursue things its way. Unless Iran plays ball, the EU's playing-nice approach with the mullahs will be seen, to all the world, as a collosal failure.

It's a no-lose situation. All that remains to be seen, in my view, is whether, and for how long, Iran will maintain the appearance of compliance.

UPDATE: It might not take long to see how this plays out. Or, it might.
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