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A Neighborly Option for Iran

by Vartan Oskanian
Thursday, 16 October 2008 16:00

Once again, the issue of bombing or sanctioning Iran has resurfaced. For years, debate about
Iran has oscillated between two bad alternatives. Some are convinced that a nuclear Iran is the
worst of all possible scenarios, worse even than the fall-out from a pre-emptive strike. But
neither a nuclear-armed Iran nor air strikes against it are wise options, certainly not for this
region. 

The repercussions of bombing Iran should be clear: closure of the Straits of Hormuz,
skyrocketing oil prices, possible retaliation against Israel (regardless of the origin of the attack),
and even greater turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the only certainty of any pre-emptive
strike is irreparable and long-lasting damage to regional security and political and economic
stability.

Of course, the alternative is no safer. A nuclear-armed Iran would change the entire region’s
security environment, and, given the enmity between Israel and Iran, two such nuclear powers
facing off against each other would pose a threat.

The way out of this dilemma is to understand what Iran wants – and how to accommodate it
without jeopardizing anyone’s security.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Iran wants to develop uranium
enrichment technology for industrial use. Everyone agrees that Iran has the right to do so. But
the world is split over whether to believe that Iran is actually doing what it says.

If as some argue Iran is being disingenuous, then once it achieves this first phase – uranium
enrichment for industrial purposes – it can easily slide into weapons-grade enrichment, leaving
the international community out in the cold, with no channels of communication, no observation
teams in place, and no monitors ready to sound the whistle.

That is why the world must not remain focused on the already-lost first phase. Iran has more
than 3,000 centrifuges despite all the international sanctions and threats. Instead, the world
must focus on the second phase, because it is weapons potential that is the looming danger,
and it is here that internationally mandated mechanisms for oversight and supervision exist.

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A Neighborly Option for Iran

by Vartan Oskanian
Thursday, 16 October 2008 16:00

The Iranians have always said that they will continue to honor their commitments and open their
doors to observation as members of the non-proliferation community. But the international
community must be more respectful of Iran’s current industrial aims if it wants Iranian
cooperation.

The first step is to assuage Iran’s feeling of being besieged. Fortunately, there are voices in
America and elsewhere that advocate engaging Iran at the highest level. But, to talk with Iran
effectively, one must understand Iranian values and thinking.

Iranians have a sense of seniority, if not superiority, born of a rich and ancient culture that has
survived into modern times. But they also have a historically ingrained sense of insecurity,
owing to frequent conquest and domination, which is being aggravated today by the presence of
American troops to their west in Iraq and to their east in Afghanistan. Their outlook nowadays is
the product of these two worldviews – suspicious of others’ motives and proud of themselves as
smart, tough negotiators and not without their own resources.

In my meetings with the current and past leaders of Syria and Iran, as well as in my meeting
with Saddam Hussein, I heard them all say the same thing: the West is out to get them. Their
explanation was that the West is uncomfortable with the motives and behavior of ideological
states -- Syria, Iran, and Iraq under Saddam were states with causes – Islam, Arab unity, or
anti-Zionism.

For Iranians, as bearers of faith and national pride, responses that seem to others self-righteous
and irrational are, in fact, necessary and acceptable.

The case of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction is a historic example of a willingness to go


to hell with your head held high. Saddam knew that he didn’t have weapons of mass
destruction, but he was unwilling to concede the right of inspectors to ask.

As in North Korea, Iran’s neighbors might provide the right mechanism to create a more
transparent relationship between Iran and the world. In the so-called “six-party talks,” North
Korea’s neighbors offered tangible incentives to Kim Jong-il’s regime to abandon its nuclear
program. The most prominent of these was an end to North Korea’s economic isolation.

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A Neighborly Option for Iran

by Vartan Oskanian
Thursday, 16 October 2008 16:00

Iran, too, feels besieged, though it is not isolated: it depends heavily on trade, and not just as a
seller of oil. Two-thirds of its population is under the age of 30, and unemployment is high; it
needs to attract foreign investment for its oil and gas industry, and to finance road construction
and other infrastructure projects.

Comparisons with neighboring Turkey are instructive. Before Iran’s Islamic revolution, it led
Turkey in foreign direct investment, income per head, and GDP growth. Now Turkey has moved
ahead, and may even join the European Union.

Other regional comparisons further reinforce that trend. The Qataris have outstripped them in
exploiting the huge gas field they share. Tiny Dubai draws in far more foreign investment:
Iranians go there for banking, trade, and fun.

Iran’s neighbors need to convince Iran’s rulers that Iranians, too, can participate in the region’s
growth, and even become regional leaders. Only an open Iran, fully integrated into the regional
economy and granted a role commensurate to its size and economic potential, will be able to
moderate its siege mentality.

Here, a vital step would be for the West to begin to envisage Iran as a potential alternative
supplier of gas, by offering to link Iran to the proposed White Stream and Nabucco pipelines
that are currently under study to bring Central Asian gas to Europe.

The world’s judgments about Iran’s motives and actions should not be distorted by Iranian pride.
We can only understand Iran’s real intentions by engaging the Iranians – not cornering them.

Project Syndicate
October 16, 2008

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