Published November 13, 2006
Increasingly, it looks as though the United States may attempt to negotiate a “grand bargain” with Iran. To settle our fundamental differences, Iran would surrender its nuclear-weapons program, stop supporting terrorism, and stop undermining America’s position in Iraq. In return, the United States would offer Iran security guarantees, and would pour in aid and investments. This seems to be the solution favored by the “realists” now running the Baker commission, and soon to be running the Defense Department.
I don’t put much faith in this approach. The mullahs are less interested in a settlement than in consolidating their leadership of the Muslim world. They want to spread Islamic radicalism and Iranian power under the umbrella of a nuclear bomb. The mullahs are likely to cheat on any agreement, as they have already cheated on past nuclear obligations, and in any case there would be no assured way to verify compliance. Nonetheless, the politics of the moment favors the drive for a grand bargain. So it behooves us to give some thought to the prospects for a deal.
Those who favor a grand bargain believe that a faction of the leadership in Tehran is more pragmatic than the radicals who support Ahmadinejad. And while the Iranian public is nationalist enough to favor a nuclear program (many Iranians believe the government’s line that the program is strictly for peaceful purposes), the public’s first concern is the economy.
So those who favor a grand bargain (Kenneth Pollack, for example) believe that a combination of big economic carrots and big economic sticks might bring Iran’s public over to the side of the “pragmatists.” In a showdown (provoked by tough economic sanctions) between the pragmatists and Ahmadinejad’s radicals, power would shift to Tehran’s own “realists.” The Iranian economy is in bad shape. Instead of being plowed into investment, Iran’s oil revenues are doled out to the regime’s core supporters through a web of patronage/corruption. Hold out the possibility of a national financial bonanza on the other side of tough economic sanctions, and Iran’s long-suffering public will side with the pragmatists against the radicals.
That, at any rate, is the realist’s winning scenario. And we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. After all, America’s hawks have long argued that the Iranian public is disaffected with the ruling regime. It is at least theoretically possible that a sanctions-induced crisis could bring to the fore pragmatic moderates who might be able to harness popular dissatisfaction and turn it against the radicals.
Still, there are lots of problems here. Even the “pragmatists” in Iran’s regime are Islamists. Would they really be ready to give up, not only a nuclear program, but even Iran’s hopes for spreading Islamic radicalism through support of groups like Hezbollah? And even if some pragmatists would give all this up, surely a huge remaining faction of radicals would not. These radicals would see to it that any agreement was cheated on. True, Libya gave up terrorism along with its nuclear weapons, but Iran’s Islamic radicalism is far more broadly based and deeply held than Libya’s. It’s tough to see Iran selling out its radical birthright to the Great Satan for a mess of pottage.
Yet over and above any concerns about whether Iran itself would agree to a deal, there are several other questionable links in the argument for a grand bargain. (I raised one of them in my “Where the Action Is” post.) The grand-bargain scenario depends upon tough economic sanctions. And the sort of sanctions that would seriously harm Iran cannot be leveled by the United States alone. At a minimum, the Europeans would have to bar investment in Iran, and they would probably have to stop importing Iranian oil as well. And for sanctions to truly be effective, Japan, Russia, and China would have to join in. Yet that sort of sanctions regime would be painful for the world as a whole. China’s booming economy, for example, depends on oil imports, while a boycott of Iranian oil could send up oil prices and harm the world’s economy. So even if America decides it wants to deal, the strategy won’t work unless the rest of the world cooperates by leveling sanctions that could hurt those countries imposing them almost as much as they hurt Iran.
On top of this, the Democrats are already talking about pressing for a withdrawal from Iraq within the next six months. Iranian leaders hearing those calls have got to think they can wait out the United States without having to surrender their nuclear hopes. The Iranians already believe that the Europeans are weak — incapable of imposing sanctions or sticking to them when they begin to bite. And the Iranian view of America as unable to take casualties or fight a long tough war has just received spectacular confirmation.
So let’s assume for a moment that the grand-bargain strategy is not hopeless on the face of it. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that, under pressure from rising American influence in the region, and reeling from world-wide economic sanctions, the Iranians just might buckle and go for a verifiable deal to junk their nuclear program and stop supporting terror. The problem is that the minimum conditions even to give this questionable strategy a try may not be present. The world community looks to be incapable of imposing serious sanctions, and America’s doves are encouraging Iran to wait for an American exit from Iraq. At that point, Iraq would collapse, and the Iranians could take de facto control of much of that country.
In short, even assuming that the grand-bargain idea is not crazy, prospects for such a bargain are now hostage to the world’s doves. With President Bush moving in somewhat more dovish direction, the success of the realist scenario now depends upon the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese, and America’s Democrats moving in a somewhat more hawkish direction. The world’s doves are now running the show. Paradoxically, however, they can only succeed by toughening up. Let’s see what happens.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.