Monday, May 15, 2006

FT Editorial - A grand bargain still only solution on Iran

A grand bargain still only solution on Iran
Published: May 15 2006 03:00 | Last updated: May 15 2006 03:00

The world is entering a critical moment over the Iranian nuclear controversy, one that will decide whether a prolonged stand-off will now spiral into conflict or settle into crisis management that might yield a workable compromise. There may not be a solution. But, if there is to be any hope of one, the strategic and tactical parameters of Iran policy need to change.

Until now, there has been a blur of belligerent ambiguity in Washington about whether the objective is to ensure Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons capability or to topple the mullahs in Tehran. That being the case, the policy options on offer seem to have hardened into sanctions or military action, despite two years of robust European engagement with Iran the US licensed rather than supported.

Much recent debate has been fatalistic, especially since Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran's mercurial and messianic president, claimed a breakthrough in enriching a small amount of uranium, a step towards mastering the technology needed for an atomic bomb.

The dismal choice, in many summations, is now between mullahs with nukes, or an attack on Iran's nuclear installations, the fall-out from which could be even more dangerous.

There is no point in mincing words. An attack on Iran would backfire viciously. It would hoist oil prices to $100-plus a barrel; Iran's war games last month in the Straits of Hormuz and test-firing of missiles that could easily reach every oilfield in the Gulf were meant as a deadly reminder of that. Tehran's confidence, moreover, is not without foundation.

Iran's theocrats, after Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's election, are now political masters in their own house and floating on a sea of oil revenue. The US invasion of Iraq has expanded Shia influence in the Arab heartland for the first time in eight centuries. America is bogged down in Iraq and militarily stretched, while Tehran can use its network of allies and proxies, not just in Iraq but across the Levant and the Gulf, to retaliate, internationally as well as regionally. Current western policy means that the Iranian regime is not easy to isolate, at home or abroad.

Confrontation suits the mullahs, despised by many Iranians for their venality as well as theocratic zeal. Bellicose western rhetoric has made nuclear power a totem around which to rally the nation, like the nationalisation of oil that prompted the Anglo-American coup against the nationalist Mossadegh government in 1953.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad made this telling link in his letter to President George W. Bush last week. Idiomatically strange to western ears, this letter touches on issues such as Palestine and the right to technology that resonate in the Islamic and developing world.

Internationally, competition for Iran's energy supplies further undermines a united response, but the false dichotomy between military action or sanctions is also fracturing a brittle big power consensus. With the Iraqi precedent in mind, Russia and China suspect the US wants a tough United Nations Security Council resolution as a prelude to war. That, plus the biting criticism of Russia by Dick Cheney, vice-president, sunk any possibility of an agreed resolution in New York last week. But that failure also led to Washington backing a renewed European effort to offer Iran incentives in return for full nuclear cooperation and transparency - a ray of light in the gloom.

The opportunity now exists to turn the tables on Tehran: to put forward an offer that recognises that Iranians have legitimate security concerns while acknowledging that others have so too. Thus a realistic threat that Iran faces isolation in the world should be accompanied by a serious offer to negotiate.

Iran would have to halt uranium enrichment and stop work on its heavy water reactor, as well as fully account for past and current nuclear activity. The US would have to complement European trade and investment carrots with security guarantees (including not to invade) and by facilitating regional security arrangements. This is an opportunity that must be seized.

An attack on Iran would proliferate further the lethal hybrid of Islamism and nationalism incubated by the invasion of Iraq, fusing an irreducible identity into an undeterrable ideology. That would be a catastrophe.


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