WASHINGTON — Iran is a complex country that defies simple definition. It possesses a nuclear program increasingly under international scrutiny. It is regarded by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism. And it makes its neighbors in the Middle East very nervous.
However, until 1979, when the Iranian revolution threw out the Shah, both the United States and Israel had close ties to Iran. In fact, Israel has never fought a direct war against Iran and is, unlike with many of its Arab neighbors, not in a technical state of war with Iran. And the Iranian civilian nuclear program was actually started by the United States in the 1950s, when the United States provided Iran with a nuclear research reactor at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center as part of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program. More recently, the United States and Iran even cooperated on throwing the Taliban out of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Dealing with Iran is therefore much more complicated than some in Washington and Jerusalem would have us believe. Dealing with Iran requires understanding a country with more than 70 million people, with revolutionary fervor, and with defiant leadership.
Negotiating with Iran will take a lot of patience. It will also provoke many difficult questions.
For instance, what should we do about Iran’s nuclear program to prevent a new country from possessing nuclear weapons? What should we do about its problematic behavior related to terrorism and human rights violations? What should we do to avoid another disastrous war in the Middle East? And what should we do to find an effective way forward for a diplomatic solution to these multiple challenges?
In short, what are our options regarding Iran?
When you look at the strategic context, the answer is clear. The only permanent solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma is persistent, patient diplomacy.
What we do not want to do is to encourage Iran into racing toward the bomb, an event that a military attack would provoke and something that Iran has so far refused to do. What we also do not want to do is to make ourselves blind in Tehran to Iran’s nuclear enrichment program (the international community currently has visibility into that program).
Dropping bombs on Iran will create such negative outcomes.
Worse, even according to the rosiest estimates, bombing Iran would only delay the reconstitution of its nuclear program by one to three years. It would rally domestic support for the regime. And it would undermine international efforts to constrain Iranian behavior, as it would have been the victim of an illegal and unprovoked attack, making international pressure on Iran politically toxic to most countries around the world.
Add to this the fact that consensus assessment of American intelligence, Israeli intelligence, and International Atomic Energy Agency experts is that Iran has not decided to acquire a nuclear weapon — and the opportunity for real diplomacy exists.
So as the debate over Iran policy heats up in Washington, and as the pro-Israel community promotes its views about the best possible way to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, it is crucial to remember that there is no military solution — neither American nor Israeli — to resolving our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
Fortunately, we now have a unique window of opportunity to move forward with serious negotiations. A new round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program is about to begin. Slated for mid-April, these talks will present the first diplomatic dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program between the West and Iran in more than a year.
All sides are making cautious signals intended to thaw the atmosphere leading up to these talks:
First, President Obama challenged those calling for war with Iran to explain how this would be in our interests. And then Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei reciprocated by reissuing a religious ruling, or fatwa, describing nuclear weapons as a “cardinal sin” and forswearing their development.
Yet, while an opportunity exists to create a permanent solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge through diplomacy, this opportunity is fragile and uncertain. Therefore, what we need now more than ever is patience. American and Iranian negotiations have not had much success in the 33 years since the Iranian revolution — so expectations should be modest.
Some will criticize negotiations as an Iranian ploy and delaying tactic. But not talking with Iran for the past 33 years has not stopped them from building a nuclear program. By talking, we will test their intentions and increase the pressure on them to come clean, paving the way for a lasting solution.
Fortunately, Israelis and Americans alike understand this. In poll after poll, Israelis and Americans say they oppose military action and support negotiations. In fact, in a February poll by Israel’s Dahaf Institute, 32 percent of Israelis oppose an attack on Iran while only 19 percent support an attack without American backing. And in a March poll by World Public Opinion, nearly 70 percent of Americans support negotiations with Iran to resolve the standoff, while only 25 percent favor American military involvement.
Putting these polls together, it’s clear that both Americans and Israelis understand that the Iran negotiations will require patience. Friends of Israel should take note.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)