Convincing Iran to refrain from developing nuclear weapons is an important priority for international peace. The U.S. government is doing the right thing so far in working cooperatively with European countries and international agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Security Council. The crisis should be resolved through diplomacy, not through punitive sanctions or the use of military force. An overly confrontational approach will be counterproductive. Unilateral pre-emption failed in Iraq and will not work here.
There is no immediate danger or need to panic. It will be several years and perhaps as long as a decade before Iran can build atomic weapons. There is ample time to develop an effective strategy to prevent nuclear weaponization. The immediate goal should be to keep Iran within the Non-Proliferation Treaty system so that international inspectors continue to have access to Iranian nuclear facilities and can report on prohibited activities. Negotiations between Iran and Russia may yield an agreement to produce nuclear fuel in Russia under international monitoring, which could help defuse the crisis.
Because Iran falsified earlier nuclear declarations and reneged on previous nonproliferation pledges, the United States and its partners are developing a strategy to increase pressure on the regime. The Security Council may soon begin discussing a “smart sanctions” package that includes an embargo on arms and weapons-related technology, a ban on travel, and the freezing of financial assets of designated Iranian elites.
Experience shows that sanctions work best when they are combined with incentives. The diplomatic strategy should include an engagement process led by the United States. The U.S. alone holds more bargaining cards with Iran than the European countries and the U.N. combined. By far the biggest inducement would be a formal U.S. pledge to refrain from military action against Iran, as part of a binding nonproliferation agreement. Security assurances are the key to preventing proliferation and would dramatically alter Iran’s security calculus. The United States could also offer to begin releasing frozen Iranian financial assets or to lift U.S. sanctions. Incentives would be tied to guarantees of Iranian compliance with nonproliferation norms.
Military strikes against Iran would have disastrous consequences. Iranian retaliation would cause major difficulties for American forces in Iraq, possible disruption of oil shipments in the region, and further setbacks in global efforts to stem the jihadist terror threat.
Nonproliferation objectives in Iran should be linked to broader denuclearization efforts in the region and globally. Iran will be more likely to accept firm nonproliferation standards for itself if there is progress toward denuclearization across the region. The goal of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction was affirmed in the 1991 Security Council resolution mandating the disarmament of Iraq.
The U.S. and other nuclear weapons states would be in a stronger position to prevent nuclear proliferation by others if they fulfilled their own pledges, made most recently at the 2000 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference, to “accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” Iran, like many other developing countries, condemns the hypocrisy of the U.S. and other nuclear weapons states preaching nuclear abstinence while clinging to these weapons for themselves. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei likens this to telling others not to smoke while a cigarette is dangling from your lips. If Washington wants Iran to come clean, it will have to kick its own nuclear habit as well.
David Cortright was a Sojourners contributing writer and president of the Fourth Freedom Forum when this article appeared.