Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Samuel Berger - Talk to Tehran -

Wall Street Journal

May 8, 2006; Page A19

It says something about our nation's posture in the Middle East that the most serious challenge we face is not Iraq -- notwithstanding a deadly insurgency, the increased risk of an all-out civil war, a massive drain on our economic resources and moral authority, and most of all, the tragic loss of lives -- but Iran. Armed with nuclear weapons, Tehran would confront the U.S. with the worst of all possible worlds: a radical theocracy led by a Holocaust-denier, awash in oil money, allied with terrorists, openly boasting of its desire to destroy Israel and possessing the deadliest of weapons.

Emboldened, its leaders would feel free to engage in destabilizing activity throughout the region. Frightened, its neighbors would feel compelled to engage in a nuclear crash program of their own. Regional threats to U.S. interests would multiply. The nonproliferation regime would collapse. The outcome, in other words, is one that no responsible American leader can accept.

One should not rule out a military option of last resort for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But we should be under no illusions: This will be neither cakewalk nor surgical strike, but rather a sustained military campaign with high risks and uncertain returns. Seeking to cripple Iran's nuclear capacity would entail taking out its air defenses; disabling its navy to prevent a retaliatory closing of the straits of Hormuz; inhibiting some of its command and control; and, of course, striking known suspected sites.

Nor should we overlook the likely consequences. Terrorism is one, and there is little doubt that Tehran's capacity -- whether against our allies, our troops in Iraq or on our very soil -- exceeds that of al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah combined. In other ways, too, Iranians would vastly complicate our task in Iraq, where their influence grows by the day as ours declines.

At the same time, and under existing circumstances, a military scenario risks triggering two other results directly contrary to U.S. interests: dividing the international community we desperately have been seeking to hold together, while rallying Iranians around a regime we desperately have been seeking to isolate. With U.S. credibility at a record low as a result of the Iraq war, few would be willing to follow us on yet another questionable venture. As for the Iranian people, their rulers will find little difficulty in convincing them that they were left with no choice but steadfastness or capitulation.

In short, a policy purportedly aimed at shoring up our security, uniting the international community around our views and pitting young reform-minded Iranians against their leaders could end up generating the precise opposite, rendering the U.S. more vulnerable, not less so; isolating our nation, not Iran; and strengthening the mullahs' rule rather than weakening it.

Another course is possible, one that is more likely to prevent a military confrontation or, if it nonetheless becomes unavoidable, less likely to produce such dangerous aftershocks. The U.S. should sit down with those who should share a sense of danger -- including, first and foremost, the European Union, Russia and China -- and explain that we are prepared for a bold diplomatic move toward Tehran if our allies are ready in exchange to impose tough sanctions on Iran should it reject a reasonable offer.

Once that agreement has been secured, we should publicly announce our readiness to negotiate with Iran on all issues of mutual concern: its nuclear program, to be sure, but also its support for militant groups, its posture toward the Middle East peace process, the future of Iraq and, on their side, the removal of our sanctions, Iran's integration into the global community and U.S. assurances of noninterference and security guarantees. Such a fresh diplomatic undertaking would have three important objectives.

First (admitting that there is considerable room for skepticism), diplomacy may, in fact, produce a breakthrough. For all its radical rhetoric and belligerent behavior, it is not at all certain that Iran's ruling class desires to become an international pariah, especially after having invested so many efforts to break its isolation. There are important assets that Tehran wants, of an economic, security and political nature, and the U.S. holds the keys to most of them. Diplomacy -- if it is serious, if it is backed by a credible threat of international sanctions, and if the U.S. takes an active role rather than passively sitting on the sidelines -- may have a chance of success.

Second, proposing such a far-reaching offer is the best way to ensure broad international support for more coercive measures should these ultimately become necessary. In contrast, and even as it publicly professes its solidarity, Europe today privately questions our approach, asking how one can reasonably test Iran's intentions if the main object of its preoccupations insists on staying out of the room.

Third, making this offer could create a new internal dynamic within Iran, setting up a viable, attractive alternative to the course its present government is embarked upon. Faced with the concrete prospect of normal relations with the U.S. and the world, the removal of sanctions and full integration into the international community, Iranians would be far more likely to question the intransigence of their regime than they are today. Iran's hardliners, not the U.S., need to be seen as the obstacle to fulfilling its people's aspirations.

The Bush administration is quick to acknowledge that military confrontation is neither its only option, nor its first one. But its ideological inflexibility may be the surest way of getting us there and getting us there in the worst possible posture: without strong international support and facing a united Iranian population. The president has stated that all options are on the table and that is as it should be. But all options include the diplomatic one. The least we ought to do is to try it robustly.

Mr. Berger, President Clinton's national security advisor from 1997 to 2001, is chairman of Stonebridge International and chairman of the International Advisory Board of DB Zwirn & Co.


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