Engage Iran if we can, deter and contain it if we must
President Eisenhower is reported to have said that one way to solve problems is to expand them. This is an insight worth recalling as the United States and Europe try to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. Europeans and Americans share vital interests in the Middle East and have pursued numerous initiatives to address the region's most pressing problems. Attention is now rightly focused on the nuclear threat posed by Iran; Iran's persistent refusal to respect the IAEA process and suspend uranium enrichment must further galvanize transatlantic thinking. A new U.S. Administration will have the opportunity to make America's global diplomacy more collaborative. While many new possibilities will be opened by such a change, there are three approaches that seem especially promising as Europeans and Americans consider how to respond together to the Iranian challenge. I. Expand opportunities for diplomacy The Bush Administration has supported from the outset the EU-III (U.K., France, Germany) effort to negotiate with Iran, and having Undersecretary Nick Burns sit with the negotiating team, at least for one session, was a welcome step. Transatlantic diplomacy should now strategically expand the problem beyond a single regional state; Europe and America need to try to solve simultaneously the three great challenges in the Middle East: making peace between Israelis and Palestinians; supporting a peaceful and successful Iraq; and stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. To accomplish these tasks, the United States and the EU should promote a regional negotiation based on the lessons learned from the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. [Note: Others have considered this proposition as well, including G. John Ikenberry and Ann-Marie Slaughter in the Princeton Project on National Security, September 2006. GMF was good enough to distribute my earlier reflections on this question in a GMF Opinion Brief in June 2008.] There are many differences, of course, between Europe of the 1970s and today's Middle East and Persian Gulf. But, borrowing John Lewis Gaddis' phrase describing the end of the Cold War, an"escape from determinism" is possible in the Middle East. People in the Middle East can live in pluralistic societies and make decisions about their own lives. If the United States and Europe put the kind of effort into solving the key problems of the Middle East that they directed to freeing Eastern Europe, escape from Middle East determinism is possible. What lessons from Helsinki might be relevant? The current Iranian leadership wants a Western commitment to its borders and a promise not to change those borders or the regime by force. The question for those on the other side of a future negotiating table is what might Tehran be prepared to concede on the questions of their nucle ar weapons program, human rights and their support for terrorism in order to get these commitments? As was the case in the 1970s, there can be no reliable answer to that question absent careful preparation and face-to-face meetings of the concerned parties. This Helsinki-like conference should include Russia, Israel, and Turkey as full participants, and would be focused on producing a"Middle East Final Act" with five components:
- A commitment to the security of all states in the region, including Israel, Iraq, and an Iran without nuclear weapons.
- A renunciation of terrorism by all parties.
- A commitment to the creation and maintenance of a viable Palestinian state, existing side-by-side in peace with Israel.
- A declaration of the"universal significance of human rights and freedoms ... in conformity with the purposes and principles of the charter of the United Nations and the universal declaration of human rights," as contained in the Helsinki Final Act.
- A joint Western-Middle Eastern commitment to economic and social development in the region, driven by efforts to engage the states in the area, including Iran, in a discussion of environmental sustainability, alternative energy, climate change, and counter-narcotics.
An agreement with these contours should also leave open the possibility of creating a follow-on organization, similar to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), that would support realizing the Middle East Final Act's goals. II. Deterrence and containment: incentive and insurance Diplomacy without the backing of strong defenses is diplomacy destined to fail. A Helsinki-like approach to the problems of the Middle East would not be easy nor, even if successful, an answer to all questions. The fact that nations met in Helsinki and forged an agreement was not independently sufficient to end the Cold War. Success depended upon other reinforcing steps, including the maintenance of strong NATO military forces and the will to deploy Pershing-II and GLCMs in the 1980s. A Middle East Helsinki, standing alone, would also be insufficient to solve the region's problems. It would be important, for example, to design an implementation plan that would not Balkanize the region. It will also be critical to establish enforcement or punitive mechanisms (including missile defenses) against the possibility of non-compliance (including Tehran's return to nuclear ambitions) or aggression by Iran that threatens Israel, other states, or U.S. or allied forces in the region. Any agreed plan for addressing the problems posed by Iran must thus include a clear message to Tehran that the transatlantic community intends to defend its interests while also prepared to talk. That message might be delivered in several ways. For example:
- Give NATO new momentum, capacity and vigor by immediately bringing France back into the NATO military structure;
- Explore NATO-GCC cooperation. The GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) worry that they will be overpowered by an ascendant Iran. Building on the Istanbul Initiative, NATO should propose joint planning and joint exercises with the GCC. This would signal to Iran that the West is prepared to defend its interests in the area and that NATO, which so successfully deterred the Soviet nuclear threat for decades, has the will and experience to do so again. Strong deterrence will support transatlantic diplomacy with Tehran. NATO-GCC cooperation might also help forestall a rush by GCC states to acquire nuclear technology in order to create their own perceived deterrent to the Iranian nuclear program.
- Explore NATO-Israel cooperation. Commentators in Europe and the United States have argued that it is time to find ways to bring Israel and NATO closer together. As with NATO-GCC ties, this could take the form of joint planning and joint exercises. NATO, Israel, and the GCC might be open (some day) to trilateral cooperation.
- Persuade Turkey to stop blocking increased NATO-EU military cooperation. EU High Representative Solana and NATO Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer should broker a deal between France and Turkey to end Turkey's veto in NATO of this vital cooperation. First, Solana and de Hoop Scheffer should argue to French President Sarkozy that Russia's invasion of Georgia and the July 30 Turkish Supreme Court's decision to leave Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party in power are"new facts" justifying reconsideration of France's opposition to the future full EU membership of Turkey. Second, in return for this change in Paris, Prime Minister Erdogan would immediately end Turkey's veto of NATO-EU military cooperation and commit to a concrete schedule for additional Turkish political and economic reforms.
III. Focus on energy security The United States and Europe should adopt a transatlantic energy security policy based on domestic actions by the United States and Canada, and support EU-wide policies aimed at promoting energy security. If Iran chooses to spurn Western efforts to engage, robust transatlantic actions to attain energy security by diversifying supplies while pursuing rigorous conservation and investing in renewables would make clear to Tehran that the West has alternatives to Iranian oil and gas. If Iran engages in a regional conversation that leads to ending its nuclear weapons ambitions and support for terrorism, the possibility of participating in moving oil and gas to world markets could then be considered.
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It is not too late for the current U.S. Administration to adopt a broader course with Iran, including talking at lower levels or opening an Interests Section in Tehran. Indeed, doing these things might be the best gift it could give to a McCain or Obama Administration. The new president's transition team will surely debate policy toward Iran in its first few days. One key part of his strategy should be to step up transatlantic efforts to meet this challenge. The United States and Europe have the chance to create opportunities for a peaceful end to Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions by expanding the vision of the threat and the opportunities. They should seize the moment. Marc Grossman is a Vice Chairman of The Cohen Group. He was Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs at the Department of State from 2001-05. He is a member of GMF's Board of Trustees.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.