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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

03 August 2005

Nuclear stalemate in Iran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just became Iran’s president, heralding a new era of speculation about the country’s nuclear program and the possibility for the West to halt it. But as this discussion takes place, it is worth keeping in mind that the obstacles to resolving the nuclear standoff with Tehran have to do with the differences in America’s and Europe’s approach towards Iran and with the balance of power within Iran.

To begin with, it is doubtful whether Europe and America can cooperate well on Iran. It is easy to presume that their differing approaches—Europe favoring a softer line emphasizing carrots, America preferring a tough line revolving around sticks—form a logical continuum that can be the basis for dealing with Tehran.

But a closer look suggests otherwise. Europe is unlikely to be tough and America is unlikely to be soft, meaning that together they are unlikely to succeed in convincing Iran to give up its nuclear program. On one hand, Europe’s record on Iraq shows that it does not have the perseverance to play tough for long. What is more, Europeans are less accustomed than Americans in equating global problems with national security, and so lack the feeling of urgency that pervades Washington. On the other, although American administrations have made overtures to Tehran, and even this administration has found it cooperative in Iraq (contrasted to what Iran could have done), President Bush’s emphasis on regime change means it is unlikely that America and Iran can find enough common ground to make a diplomatic settlement work.

Add to this Iran’s domestic politics. Many Iranian leaders regard nuclear weapons as the sine qua non of their foreign policy, even if the cost is international isolation and the domestic poverty this entails. Those are the ideologues. But Tehran has pragmatists too. For the pragmatists to gain favor, they have to show that there are benefits from striking a bargain with the West. This, however, requires that America accord an unprecedented degree of trust in Tehran. Or, the pragmatists can gain the upper hand if Iran faces a deep economic and social crisis that forces it to confront its own revolutionary logic and choose butter over guns. But for this to happen, the West needs comprehensive sanctions (i.e. Europe and America working together) that will cripple Iran's economy and trigger the soul-searching that can pave the way for change. It is hard to believe that Europe will go down that path.

In other words, the two factions in Iran can hold their own but cannot change each other’s minds. Iran will be forced to change if Europe agrees to be tough and apply sanctions, but that’s unlikely; on the other, Iran will change willingly if the proper incentives are given, but it is unlikely that Washington will be fully convinced that Tehran’s regime has changed and hence be willing to extend so many carrots.

This is a vicious cycle that will be hard to break.

Further reading:
Kenneth Pollack & Ray Takeyh, “Taking on Tehran,” Foreign Affairs, March / April 2005 (link)

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