PARIS - Negotiations over Iran's nuclear program have been stalled for more than three years. For six years, the voices of reason have largely been drowned out, with passions and delusions claiming primacy.
Countries sitting on their own nuclear arsenals seem to think that they can give Iran orders; it's a case of "do as I say, not as I do." Another favorite delusion in the West is to believe that Iran will surrender if pressure is steadily increased. Anyone familiar with Iran knows that this provokes only a defiant response.
But Iran, too, harbors illusions, including the notion that it can count on support from non-Western countries, or at least from some sort of Islamic caucus. Yet, at each stage in the crisis, Iran's supposed "friends" have let it down. Iran has also believed that it could split France, and perhaps Germany, away from the United States - as if either country would risk infuriating the Americans for the sake of a leader like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Above all, Iran deludes itself that it can develop an advanced nuclear program by itself. In fact, continued isolationism would force Iran to reinvent nuclear technologies already invented by others, no doubt with poor results.
Passions abound. The West feels repugnance over the Iranian regime's cynical human rights transgressions and hypocritical mixing of religion and politics. Western public opinion abhors the constant insults directed at Israel, Jews, and the West in general.
There is a profound conviction in the West that an Iranian regime such as this must want nuclear weapons, and that it is acting accordingly. But Iran has been forecast to develop the bomb for 20 years. People remain convinced that next year, or maybe the year after, the prediction will come true.
Thus, insidiously, the burden of proof is shifted. As Angela Merkel said at the United Nations in 2007: "The world does not need to prove to Iran that Iran is building an atomic bomb. Iran must persuade the world that it does not want the Bomb." Emotions run high in Iran too, which is happy to return to its familiar role as eternal victim in plots by the Great Powers.
From time to time, Mohammed El Baradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has attempted to reintroduce reason and remind everyone that the focus must remain on capabilities, not intentions. This raises the practical question of what Iran's current bomb-making capability is. Would it be possible to detect in advance clandestine activity aimed at producing one, and, if so, what would Iran have to pledge in the matter of inspections and checks, and how might such pledges be obtained?
We know that Iran has made progress with the centrifuge technology essential for producing the enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons. It is likely that Iranian teams have been working on the mechanics of a nuclear explosive device, at least at the blueprint stage, and the country is also developing ballistic missiles that would bring many regional capitals within range of a nuclear attack - Israeli cities, of course, being the obvious targets.
That said, Iran must still bring all of these programs together, and that cannot happen undetected. Iran may be capable of producing sufficient nuclear material to make one or two bombs within the next couple of years, but such activities would inevitably come into the open, because Iran would either have to enrich the uranium under the eyes of IAEA inspectors or expel them, giving the game away.
At this stage, Iran still needs at least a year or longer to assemble one or two crude Hiroshima-type bombs. The hardest part still lies ahead: the miniaturization needed to fit a nuclear device into a warhead. Here, too, Iranian testing would also be easily detected. So, to build a credible nuclear arsenal, Iran would need a decade or longer.
No one can say for sure that Iran's regime has formally adopted a nuclear weapons program. Although many Iranian leaders no doubt toy with the idea, others are carefully weighing the costs of such a venture - the risks of preventive strikes from outside, increased isolation, and a regional nuclear arms race.
The West's options will continue to narrow if it maintains its present course. It is a great pity that formal negotiations with Iran have been stalled since 2005 amid Western demands that Iran suspend all of its enrichment-related activities. Three years have been wasted, and we have seen no signs of suspension or willingness to negotiate.
Do negotiations stand any chance of success with Ahmadinejad as president? The answer is "no" if our objective remains forcing Iran to renounce all activity on centrifugation. But this objective was also unattainable under President Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad's reform-minded predecessor. Acquisition of this technology was, even then, a national priority.
If we alter course, progress may still be possible. For example, if Iran's nuclear activities were to be surrounded with enough voluntarily accepted checks and controls, we could be confident of detecting at an early stage any diversion toward military purposes. Iran could develop its civil nuclear program while remaining a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; the IAEA would be able to fulfill its role as watchdog; and perhaps confidence in Iranian intentions would slowly be restored.
We cannot know whether this course of action is realistic unless we try it. But we do know that the alternatives - increasing sanctions, military strikes, and perhaps war - would have unforeseeable consequences. Only rational behavior by the West has any chance of eliciting a rational response from Iran.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Europe's World, 2009.
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