Friday, December 15, 2006

Can We Talk with Iran?

Iran is one of the trouble spots in the Middle East. The theocratic administration sponsors terrorism, violates the non-proliferation regime, and tries to export radical ideology. Despite these problems, the Iraq Study Group, Chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, suggested that the United States talk with Iran and Syria in order to placate current turmoil in Iraq. Some media quote this to criticize the Bush administration on the Iraq policy. But we have to think again. The Study Group recommendation is not an oracle. It is essential to review carefully whether we can talk with Iran or not, regarding Iraq, nuclear bomb, and terrorism throughout the Middle East.

Iran is expanding its influence in the Shiite area in Iraq, since the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime. Diplomats and experts comment that Iran’s clout in Iraq is much stronger than that of Syria’s. Then, should we make some kind of concessions with Iran in order to settle disputes in Iraq? Things are not so simple. Iran is developing nuclear bombs. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insists on wiping out Israel. Dovish policy to Iran would make things worse.

To talk about this issue further, let me mention comments by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the confirmation hearing on December 5. Regarding the expected consequences of US attack against Iran, Secretary Gates said they might not be able to retaliate directly, but they could provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, such as biological and chemical weapons. As for Iran’s leverage on Iraq, he mentioned “They are certainly not being helpful in Iraq and are doing us -- I think doing damage to our interests there, but I think they could do a lot more to hurt our effort in Iraq.” In addition, according to Gates, Ahmadinejad thinks seriously of terminating Israel. Judging from what Secretary Gates said at the hearing, it is not easy to talk with Iran, though he recognize it necessary.

George Perkovich, Vice President at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, insists that the West talk with Iran in his article “Washington’s Dilemma: Why Engaging with Iran Is a Good Idea” to Yale Global Online on December12. In conclusion, Perkovich says “Iran does have weaknesses, and a dialogue can expose them, perhaps intensifying the country’s internal fissures. Refusal to talk cedes the high ground to Iran without any benefit to Washington.” However, leading policymakers, including members of the Iraq Study Group and Henry Kissinger, do not show specific ways to scare or entice Iranian theocrats into accepting America’s vital interest.

Some concerns must be considered to talk with Iran. The Los Angels Times presents interesting analysis in “Iran Looks Like the Winner of the Iraq War” on December 10. According to this article, the Iraq Study Group observes the rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East since the US-led war in Iraq, and insists that the United States needs to seek some help from Iran for resolution. However, Mustafa Alani, Director at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai points out that though Iran’s leverage is growing and the Bush administration has no effective solutions to stop Iran’s nuclear ambition, the price of cooperation is high. Mark Fitzpatrick, Senior Analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says that Iran would demand recognition of uranium enrichment and lifting sanctions in return. This will ruin non-proliferation efforts by the United States and EU3. Also, Israel and moderate Arabs, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, are dismayed to think of possible deal between Iran and the United States.

Ex-Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi argues that a dialogue will benefit extremist Ahmadinejad without improving current challenges on Iraq, non-proliferation, and terrorism. But should we simply refuse to talk with Iran, and assist political protest in Iran?

Senior Fellows Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, show concrete ideas to deal with Iran in a policy brief, entitled “Forcing Hard Choices on Tehran.” In this essay, both authors point out that economic and diplomatic sanctions by themselves do not inflict sufficiently on theocrats, because they are used to international isolation. These measures must be coupled with other means. Fortunately, unlike North Korea, democracy movements are strong in Iran, and overseas activists provide substantial support for them. Domestic pressure will upset mullahs. In addition authors propose to “Dissuade and deter by checking Iran’s Military potential.” For this objective, the United States must establish security architecture with European and Middle East allies to contain Iran. America and its allies must have sufficient naval power to counter Iranian naval blockade to stop oil route in the Gulf. Also, authors suggest the United States offer air defense system to shoot down Iranian missiles. Authors insist on using offensive ways as well, that is, to threaten conventional military strike to target senior leaders and economic infrastructure. Furthermore, they maintain to “Dissuade and disrupt by preventative military action.” If Iranian theocrats regard the United States as weak and reluctant to fight, they will quest further gains in this power game. Soft policies are nonetheless important. Clawson and Eisenstadt urge the United States to offer inducements to Iran, like assuring no attack if they abandon their nuclear project. Simultaneously, authors claim the West should promote reforms in Iran regardless of nuclear problem.

Consequently, we must not confuse dialogue with appeasement. The West must show strength and unyieldingness against Iran. Just leaving Iraq would make things worse. All the problems associated with Iran --- nuclear weapon, Iraq, and terrorism --- are strongly interconnected. America and EU3 must be united firmly, and help Iranian people’s quest for political reform.

Finally I would like to mention another stakeholder, which is Japan. Current regime in Iran is an ideological enemy to Japan. Westernizing modernization policies under the Pahlavi monarchy were modeled after those of Japan and Turkey. As a result of the Iranian revolution, clerical oppressors took place of enlightened despot. It is a pity that Japanese leaders think light of this fact, and I will mention this further on another occasion.