US should try the carrot on Iran before the stick

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2007, 12:00am

European diplomacy, Russian deal-making, UN sanctions and sabre-rattling from the US have not dissuaded Iran from its nuclear ambitions. With Tehran using the time bought to move well down the path to being able to make the fuel for weapons, a more urgent approach is necessary - and Washington holds the key.

That is not to say it is time for a military solution; the disaster of the Iraq invasion serves as a poignant lesson. Rather, US President George W. Bush has to offer Iran the biggest prize it could ask for: the possibility of a restoration of full diplomatic ties.

Americans will find rewarding Iran hard to swallow. The nation has been Washington's nemesis since the Islamic revolution 28 years ago, when the US embassy in Tehran was seized and diplomats held hostage for 444 days. Iran's hardline leaders have since threatened the US' foremost ally in the Middle East, Israel, backed Lebanese militants and supported Shiite extremists in Iraq.

While restoring diplomatic relations may seem a reward, it should be offered only as part of a comprehensive deal centred on a nuclear agreement, joint security guarantees, resumption of trade and recognition of Israel. Negotiating such an agreement will take resolve, but is the most viable way of preventing Iran going the way of North Korea and developing a nuclear bomb.

The world's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been unable to divert Iran from its single-minded march towards proliferation. Inspectors of the UN agency have been barred from facilities and had their orders ignored despite Iran having signed and ratified the world's safeguard against the spread of atomic technology, the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iran was told by the IAEA 10 months ago to stop enriching uranium, and its refusal prompted Security Council sanctions. More sanctions have since followed, and in light of inspectors' belief that Tehran is close to being able to produce weapons-grade material, demands that the restrictions be further toughened seem likely at the group's latest board of governors' meeting under way in Geneva.

UN sanctions failed against North Korea, which has been able to sustain itself through more than half a century of international isolation. If targeted at Iran's oil industry, the pillar of the nation's economy, they are likely to be considerably more effective.

But this is a card that international negotiators should play only as one of the last resorts. Tough sanctions on Iraq during dictator Saddam Hussein's rule barely affected the leadership, while miring ordinary Iraqis in poverty. The same would be the case in Iran.

With Iran having the world's second-largest oil reserves, such a move is not likely to be readily adopted by importer and Security Council permanent member China; nor would developed nations take kindly to the significant rise in world oil prices that an interruption to Tehran's oil trade would cause.

Better, then, for the US to come to terms with its bitterest enemy in the Middle East, Iran, by proposing face-to-face talks - with diplomatic relations as the incentive. The benefits of such a deal for the US and the region would far outweigh any perception the US had lost an ideological struggle with an adversary.

A first step was made last month in Baghdad when the US and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq broke three decades of diplomatic freeze to discuss bringing peace to the insurgency-racked nation. Ramping up the discussions to focus on matters closer to home would be straightforward in such circumstances.

If Iran declines the offer, or accepts it but continues on its dangerous path, the effort would at least have been made, and other options can then be turned to.