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Sensible ideas on why to engage Iran

You know you’re in the heartland of the global energy world when the front page of the local newspaper carries daily oil and gas prices. I have had the good fortune this week to be in Texas while following two major global developments: the world’s major powers returning the Iran nuclear file to the UN …


You know you’re in the heartland of the global energy world when the front page of the local newspaper carries daily oil and gas prices. I have had the good fortune this week to be in Texas while following two major global developments: the world’s major powers returning the Iran nuclear file to the UN Security Council and scampering to contain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, following its test explosion this week.

We are passing through a milestone moment in the global energy, diplomacy and nuclear proliferation sectors. Here in the vortex of American energy interests and Bush family political support, the view of the world and its potential or real threats is most instructive. One quickly confirms that which is more or less obvious from discussions throughout the United States: Washington has very few realistic or immediate policy options that can stop the forward progress of the Iranian or North Korean nuclear industries without triggering much worse consequences.

The US is not yet in panic mode, but urgency is in the air. For the past 15 post-Cold War years since it has been the sole global superpower, and especially since 9/11, Washington has taken it upon itself to lead the international effort to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In cases where the rest of the world’s powers do not agree with it, the US has not hesitated to take unilateral diplomatic or even military action to eliminate what it perceives as real threats to itself or its allies, including most notably to Israel and to Arab oil producers.

That process to date has comprised two principal goals and three main policy tools. The stated goals are arms control and promotion of democracy. The tools are regime change by military means; multilateral diplomacy using sticks and carrots; and unilateral diplomacy, threats, sanctions and other such means.

Non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and spreading democracy are reasonable goals that few people would object to, and, indeed, many countries around the world have worked hard with the US to achieve these aims. But the results have been slim. The two most notable failures are Iran and North Korea, who are pushing ahead with substantive nuclear industry programs.

These two countries are especially noteworthy (foolhardy perhaps, only time will tell) for the blunt manner in which they openly defy the US and its warnings. They persist because recent and current American-led efforts to freeze their nuclear programs have more bark than bite, at least so far. That may change, though it is hard to envisage military action that could end these two nuclear programs without triggering either serious reprisals or significant chaos, particularly in global energy markets. They flex their muscles and twirl their guns here in Texas, but they also know the difference between a single bullet that cleanly fells the enemy and an urban (or global) rumble that triggers years of retributive gang warfare.

New thinking is needed on how to address Iran and North Korea, and other countries that will seek nuclear industries in due course. Three political science professors at Stanford University in California are floating just such a bold new proposal on how the US should deal with the Iran nuclear issue. Michael McFaul, Abbas Milani and Larry Diamond are political science professors and also fellows and coordinators of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

In a forthcoming article appearing in the Winter 2006-2007 issue of The Washington Quarterly, they argue that the US should offer Iran a deal it cannot refuse, one that combines verifiable nuclear safeguards, including suspending enrichment, with restoring full diplomatic ties and promoting trade, investment and democracy. A key part of such an offer would be mutual pledges not to use force against each other or initiate military action against one’s neighbors.

They advise Washington to reverse its policy of sanctioning or threatening Iran – which is not working well anyway – and instead engage the Iranian government and people. Connecting with all quarters in Iranian society would facilitate the democratic transformation of Iran from within. The authors suggest that developments in Iran could echo Western engagement of the Soviet Union in the Helsinki process in the 1970s, which included a “security basket alongside a “human rights basket that helped undermine the communist system. The Middle East would benefit from a regional security grouping similar to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that emerged from Helsinki.

Engaging Iran in a manner that affirmed its legitimate nuclear industry and regional security concerns, while also opening its domestic system to democratic and human rights norms that its citizens covet, the authors argue, could simultaneously achieve arms control and democratization goals. These would benefit Iran, the US, the Middle East and other interested parties. Sounds like a direction worth exploring.

Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

Topics: Wael Ghonim

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