At a Dangerous Crossroads
A Global Approach to Iranian Nuclear Ambitions
From Elections, Vol. 30 (1) - Spring 2008
Chuck Hagel is the senior US Senator from the state of Nebraska. He serves on the Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations and is the author of America: Our Next Chapter (HarperCollins, 2008).
Over the last few years, the United States has lost considerable influence and trust in the Middle East and other regions, undermining the expectations and power of US leadership in the eyes of the world. Today, Iraq remains mired in political discord combined with a tenuous security situation. At the same time, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festers, Syria is ostracized and insecure, and Lebanon is paralyzed by a devastating political deadlock. US influence is waning outside of the Middle East as well. Our relations with Russia have sunk to a new post-Cold War low. On my trip to Moscow in January 2008, Russian officials openly expressed "rawness" about the course of our bilateral relationship. Such resentment has begun to manifest itself in a number of key disagreements that could quickly escalate.
The problems do not end there. US-Turkey relations are in tatters over an inability to translate Turkey's 21st century government and objectives into the relationship of mutual interests that existed following World War II. The US-India civil nuclear assistance deal is in a state of uncertainty. Afghanistan continues to lose ground, and Al Qaeda has reemerged stronger than at any time since it was ousted from Afghanistan six years ago. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan represents the most dangerous zone in the world, and Pakistan itself has entered a pivotal political period with potential geostrategic implications for the United States. All of these events have limited the ability of the United States to focus needed attention on Africa, Central Asia, and Latin America, where China, India, and others now vie for influence and resources. In addition, record-breaking energy prices and surging demand are reshaping the global geopolitical economic power landscape from Russia, China, and India to Angola, Nigeria, venezuela, Norway, and the United States. The world is witnessing an unprecedented diffusion of power that will increasingly be the norm for the 21st century.
The uncontrollable and combustible developments of the past few months present the reality of a world at a historic crossroads. This reality has resulted in some hopeful and positive recent events that can guide US policymakers to a new consensus in world affairs. Though frustratingly slow, there is progress on North Korea through the Group of Six process. President Bush's trip to the Middle East and the 2007 Annapolis meeting, during which all Arab countries, including Syria, sat at the same table with Israel, has generated some momentum on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Finally, in late 2007 the US intelligence community judged, in a National Intelligence Estimate, that Iran's decision-making and behavior may be influenced through engagement. These are signs that the world can move toward a consensus of common interests.
Recognizing that the United States and the world are at a critical point, the nation must not squander this moment and miss an opportunity to address what is perhaps the most critical and visible foreign policy issue of the day: Iranian nuclear armament. In so doing, US policies, actions, and relationships must be grounded in internationally recognized common interests.
The Fundamentals of US Foreign Policy
All too often, we mistakenly try to compartmentalize and isolate events and issues-like a nuclear Iran-and do not stop to consider how a series of events are interconnected and collectively impact the world. A nation cannot shape such events by acting alone. Unless countries work to influence and guide the course of global events, incidents will shape themselves and the world, leading to an even more dangerous planet. Today's world necessitates a modern, complex frame of reference to address global challenges that potentially affect the six and a half billion citizens of the world. Loose talk of World War III, intimidation, threats, and bellicose speeches only heighten the dangers facing the international community. If the United States does not offer solutions and build international alliances, it will instead strengthen the hand of those who prey upon a confused, frightened, and disorganized world.
The choices that our leaders make over the next few years will frame the structure and set the course for global security well into the new century. Just as it did after World War II, the United States must lead from the strength of common purpose and common interest. Working with allies and through alliances can be frustrating and imperfect, but there is no other option. We cannot successfully meet the challenge of Iran without the support of Russia, China, and the world community. Ultimately, this means military operations are not viable methods of dealing with Iran.
Iran will remain a significant regional power in the years to come. The United States cannot change that reality, and its strategic thinking and policies for the Middle East must acknowledge the role of Iran today and well into the future. This acknowledgement, however, should not distort Iran's dangerous, destabilizing, and threatening behavior in the region. US differences with Iran are real: Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and continues to provide material support to Hezbollah and Hamas. The president of Iran publicly threatens Israel's existence while simultaneously attempting to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Iran has not helped stabilize the current chaos in Iraq and is responsible for weapons and explosives being used against US military forces in the country. Yet US military strength alone will not achieve any level of sustainable stability with Iran. The United States must employ a comprehensive strategy that uses all of its tools of influence within its foreign policy arsenal-political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military.
Admiral Mike McConnell, the US Director of National Intelligence, highlighted the need for such a comprehensive solution in late 2007, when he released a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. In a major reversal, the report, which represents the best collective judgment of all 16 US intelligence agencies, concluded with high confidence that even though Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, it has continued its uranium enrichment program-a notable cause for concern. Perhaps most significantly, however, the agencies concluded that some combination of threats of intensified scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve security and prestige, might prompt Tehran to extend the current moratorium on its nuclear weapons program.
However, the Iran NIE is not a rejection of international pressure or sanctions. It instead underscores that the United States must have a comprehensive strategy on Iran. In the last two years, the United States has worked closely with partners on the UN Security Council, Germany, Japan, and other key states, as well as the UN Secretary General and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to pursue a diplomatic strategy regarding Iran's nuclear program. The UN Security Council has adopted two binding resolutions calling on Iran to fully disclose its nuclear program and comply with its international nuclear obligations. Earlier this year, the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany agreed to a draft resolution on a third round of new sanctions against Iran. This informal coalition known as the "P-5 + 1" (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council-China, France, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom-plus Germany) has made offers to Iran to address its nuclear concerns and find ways to build on common interests.
Challenges to Cooperation and the Path Forward
There are, however, growing difficulties in forging an international partnership on Iran. Prospects for more substantive, serious action in the UN Security Council are in question; with only a select few international partners, we appear increasingly reliant on a unilateral effort to expand financial pressure on Iran through actions outside of the UN Security Council. Iran's actions, both on its nuclear program and in Iraq, are unchanged. Repeatedly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says that his country's nuclear program is "irreversible." Iran's leaders appear increasingly confident in their position vis-à-vis the United States, and concerns remain that the United States' real objective in Iran is regime change, rather than a change in Iran's behavior.
Last year, I wrote to President Bush expressing my concerns about our current path regarding Iran. I told him that unless there is a strategic shift in our policies, the United States would find itself in a dangerous and increasingly isolated position. Our present collective actions will not produce the results that we seek on Iran's nuclear program, Iraq, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or any other issue. If our current policies continue, countries will grow uncertain about our motives and less willing to risk tougher measures against Iran. our ability to sustain a united international front will weaken, leaving us with limited options. Therefore, the United States must employ wise statecraft to redirect deepening tensions with Iran toward a higher ground of resolution.
We must be clear that we do not seek regime change in Iran, that our objections are to the actions and policies of the Iranian government-not the Iranian people-and that improved US-Iran relations are a real possibility and clearly in the interests of the Iranian people, the Middle East, and the United States. In 2007, President Bush authorized the US Ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, to hold narrow and limited-agenda bilateral talks with Iranian officials regarding Iraq; I have supported this effort. Three rounds of high-level talks have been held. A fourth round of talks at the technical level has been postponed by Iran on two occasions over the last several months. The continued delays and miscommunication with regard to the planning of these narrow talks further demonstrate the need for a new dynamic in this complex and confused relationship.
Now is the time for the United States to actively pursue an offer of direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks with Iran, thereby making it clear that everything is on the table. This should include offering Iran a credible way to gain the respect of the international community, security guarantees if it is willing to give up nuclear weapons ambitions, and other incentives. Such actions will, however, require the day-to-day efforts and presence of a very senior administration official of higher rank than the US Ambassador to Iraq. The offer should be made even as the United States continues other elements of its Iran strategy: applying financial pressure with multilateral sanctions, working in the UN Security Council on a third sanctions resolution, and supporting Middle Eastern countries that share our concerns about Iran. The US government should also seek to work in concert with Russian officials and propose a new initiative to help resolve the standoff over Iran's nuclear program.
Creative approaches like these would strengthen the ability of the United States and it allies to deal with Iran. US allies and international institutions would be more confident to stand with the United States, not just because of its power, but also because they trust the purpose of its foreign policy. This could create a new dynamic in US-Iran relations, in part by giving Iranians incentive to act in their interest to possibly achieve better relations with the West. But the United States should be prepared that any dialogue with Iran will take time, diplomatic effort, focus, and discipline. Engagement should not be limited to government-to- government contact. As I called for last year, part of that initiative could be offering to reopen a consulate in Tehran-not formal diplomatic relations, but a consulate-to help encourage and facilitate people-topeople exchanges. US-Iranian parliamentarian exchanges would also be beneficial to both sides. All nations of Europe and most of our allies in the Middle East and Asia presently have diplomatic relations with Iran.
The Necessity of Diplomacy
By refusing to engage Iran in direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks, the United States is perpetuating a dangerous trend of geopolitical unpredictability. The danger of an opaque, hair-trigger environment was clearly evidenced early this year with the naval incident in the Persian Gulf between US warships and Iranian speedboats, which could have easily and unnecessarily escalated into a major armed conflict. US refusal to recognize Iran's influence increases, rather than decreases, Iran's sway. Diplomacy is an essential tool to ratchet down the pressure of conflict, increase the leverage of strength, and create dialogue and opportunities to identify common interests. To be sure, hard choices face the Iranian government as well. Does Tehran want to perpetuate tensions with "the Great Satan" to distract the Iranian people from an increasingly dire and stagnant economic situation, social contradictions, and stresses that ultimately point to economic collapse? Will the Iranian government decide that conflict is preferable to the beginning of reconciliation with the United States and opening to international acceptance? As of yet, these answers are unclear.
It may be that Iranian President Ahmadinejad wants to take his country into conflict with the United States. He may believe that baiting the United States into striking Iran will allow him to consolidate clear control over the Iranian government by undermining the influence of Iran's Supreme Leader. The United States must demonstrate to the rest of Iran's leaders, the Iranian people, the Middle East, and the world that it is an irresponsible Iranian President who could take Iran into conflict, not the United States. As a result, US strategy must be one focused on direct engagement and diplomacy, backed by the leverage of international pressure, military options, isolation, and containment. This is not unlike the strategies that the United States pursued during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The core tenets of George Kennan's "The Long Telegram" and the strategy of containment remain relevant today. Continued hostile relations between the United States and Iran will have the effect of isolating the United States, as countries in the region move around us to address their own national interests.
Inside Iran, there are social strains and serious differences of opinion in a population of 65 million, of which twothirds are under the age of 30. Iran's economy is plagued by contradictions, inefficiencies, and structural problems. There are political divides in Tehran, most notably the fact that one of President Ahmadinejad's key opponents, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the former President of Iran, is now the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with selecting the next Supreme Leader in Iran. Despite a closed and secretive government, there are growing signs that Ahmadinejad's political influence is waning, and US strategy should exploit this fact and other political differences. We should help strengthen the hands of moderates and reformers in the regime, rather than playing the Iranian president's game by allowing ourselves to recklessly ricochet into a conflict that could help unite Iran and the Muslim world behind the very extremists that we should be isolating. Because of the awesome responsibility that comes with the great power that the United States uniquely possesses, we must be more mature in testing the proposition that the United States and Iran can overcome decades of mutual mistrust, suspicion, and hostility.
The United States and the Middle East face enormous challenges. We must grapple with more than just Iran and Iraq. The Israel-Palestinian conflict, with its connections to Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and beyond, is also approaching a defining crossroads. In the Middle East, Hamas can no longer simply be ignored. The United States must not again pursue a policy premised on an illusory hope that Hamas will collapse through isolation. Nor can Syria be excluded; serious focus must be given to the "Israel-Syria" track as part of any peace process. These challenges will not simply wait for the next US president. Lasting solutions in the Middle East lie beyond January 2009. One of the most significant and potentially lasting contributions that President Bush could leave the United States and the world would be to begin to reverse the dangerous slide of US global standing and influence. Twenty years ago, sustained, disciplined diplomacy under President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker laid the groundwork for Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic breakthroughs under the Clinton administration. Over the next year, this administration should assemble the next few pieces of the Middle East peace puzzle.
Since World War II, US leadership has, for the most part, been a stabilizing force that has been beneficial for our country and the world. Wise US leadership helped create the array of international institutions, alliances, structures, and treaties that brought peace and prosperity to most of the world that had been devastated by two world wars. Once again, US leadership is being called upon at a transformational time in history to help set a new course for a rudderless world drifting in a sea of combustible dangers. In engaging with Iran, the Middle East, and the world, we US policymakers must be wide in our scope, clear in our purpose, measured in our words, strong in our actions, generous in our spirit, humble in our attitude, and wise in our direction. The United States and Iran are now at a historic crossroads. The path that we choose to take will affect the future of mankind.