Bush must abandon planfor regime change in Iran

BY ALON BEN-MEIR

Iran’s success in developing enriched uranium, even if this achievement is limited in scope, obviously could have serious regional and international implications. Sadly, the failure of the Bush administration to pursue a coherent strategy toward Iran and its willy-nilly approach for the past five years have made it possible for Iran to reach this milestone. Now that it has defied the West, in particular, the United States, and crossed a critical threshold on its way to nuclear development, Tehran may be more willing to make a deal if faced with two choices: receive either major economic and financial help or punishment of a kind that threatens the foundation of the regime.

First, for such an approach to succeed, the Bush administration must abandon its obsession with regime change in Iran. As long as the clergy in Tehran believe that the United States is bent on regime change, discussions with Iran, as in the past, will go nowhere. If the White House genuinely seeks a diplomatic solution, which it has repeatedly asserted to be its goal, it should not at the same time attempt to undermine the regime and in the process erode its own credibility. Yet, a State Department office for Iranian affairs was recently created to focus on changing the political system in Tehran. And as a sign of the importance of its mission, it is headed by the deputy-assistant secretary of state, Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the vice president, whose own office is known for advocating the use of force of against Iran.

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Second, the United States must negotiate directly with Iran. Until now the administration has left it to the Europeans, notably Britain, France, and Germany, to do the negotiating. But Iran is fully aware that it’s the United States that really matters, not simply because it’s the only country (besides Israel, which still needs America’s acquiescence to any action it takes against Iran) that can seriously threaten Tehran, but because the United States holds the key to the implementation of any future agreement. Thus, if this administration truly wants a peaceful solution to the current impasse, it must be willing to negotiate directly with Iran.

Third, the Bush administration in concert with the EU must present Iran with two alternatives from which to choose. The first would be in the form of a comprehensive economic aid package, which Tehran will find extremely difficult to refuse. Iran is in dire need of investment and must rebuild its crumbling infrastructure. Only substantial infusions of foreign capital could brighten its economic prospects. In return, Tehran will need to agree to abandon its nuclear program and allow rigorous and unimpeded inspection by the IAEA. It should be noted here that the Iranian leadership is not entirely united behind pursuing a nuclear program in defiance of the international community, and those willing to settle for a trade-off could prevail if the United States appears genuine in pursing a policy of non-confrontation.

The second alternative would be that the administration makes a credible threat– that is, one that the Iranian clergy believes it will follow through on — should negotiations fail. Even more critically, the threat should also appear credible to Russia and China. Because only if they believe in the U.S. determination to take action will they lean on the Iranian clergy to change course and so prevent an international crisis, one that does not serve either their political or economic interests. For this to happen, the United States should also demonstrate some patience, even allow Iran to revel in its success, which will help show the international community that the administration has made every effort to reach a diplomatic solution. The administration should also make it clear that the negotiations will not be allowed to drag on for years: Six months to a year should be the time frame for an agreement.

Fourth, how soon the conflict with Iran is resolved is especially important for Israel, which has stated it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. More than once, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has threatened Israel’s very survival, and the Israelis have no reason to doubt him when he says that he believes Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth. Israeli defense experts, including former directors of Mosad, told me that while Israel would certainly prefer that the international community deal with Iran’s egregious behavior, it will not wait indefinitely for this to happen, specifically to the point of allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons or master the technology to build them. Iran, from Israel’s perspective, has already crossed a critical threshold by successfully enriching uranium, a feat that shortens the time needed (perhaps less than a year) for Iran to reach what Israel considers a point of no return. For this reason, Israel believes Ahmadinejad, when he recently announced that Iran is “presently conducting research” on the P-2 centrifuge, which if successful, would potentially quadruple Tehran’s enrichment power and present a more immediate and ominous challenge to Israel.

With the quagmire in Iraq, this administration can ill afford to continue pursuing a policy of regime change in Tehran when such a policy has so far been a complete failure. Having successfully enriched uranium, Tehran may be more inclined to make a deal now because with this achievement it has secured a face-saving way out and can negotiate from a stronger position. The Bush administration must recognize this new reality and change course if it wants to prevent setting half of the Middle East on fire.