With US President George W. Bush in Europe getting EU leaders to agree to toughen UN sanctions against Iran, and with the ongoing debate between Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Barack Obama about whether the US needs to talk with Iran’s rulers, the issue of Iran’s nuclear program is heating up. Iranians, no surprise, are watching this debate with interest. They need to do more than watch.
Iran’s political elite sees the US, rather than Europe, as their appropriate international counterpart. Only the US can give the Islamic Republic the security guarantees it craves. The US, indeed, should be prepared to eventually give such guarantees if it wants Iran to stop the more suspicious parts of its nuclear program.
But Iran must do its part to make any future dialogue with the US a success. In talks with members of Iran’s policy community, I am continually astounded that they see resolving the nuclear conflict — or, indeed, other problems in which Iran has a stake — to be primarily the responsibility of the US, Europe, and other major powers, not of Iran.
Such passivity is not in Iran’s interest. As the Middle East’s essential regional player, Iran can trigger and heat up conflicts as well as contribute to their solution. Yet few in the Iranian establishment understand that being the leading regional power brings responsibility; and that only responsible behavior can create legitimacy and acceptance that Iran craves. Iranian policymakers must, therefore, try to develop their own ideas for a negotiated resolution of the nuclear and other regional security issues, as well as to think about how Iran can rebuild trust in its actions.
Iran’s leaders should begin by shunning hostile rhetoric. Incendiary statements about Israel exacerbate the lack of trust among Iran’s would-be partners, and make it hard for those in Europe and the US who are interested in building more favorable relations. Iran hints that it wants to have a high-level dialogue with the US in the not-too-distant future. If true, Iran should realize that violent statements on sensitive issues would set back any serious attempt to get a dialogue going.
Iran could also build trust if it became more transparent, particularly about its own strategic ambitions. A good start would be to publish key documents that are constantly referred to by Iranians but never seen — say, Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa that reportedly rules that Islam prohibits the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons.
It would also be helpful if Iran laid out its strategic vision for the region. It should accept the concerns of its neighbors, seek to develop its own ideas for regional confidence and security building, and participate in efforts to create regional security arrangements. It should also positively respond to offers from the US to establish confidence-building measures between the two countries’ military forces, particularly their navies.
As to the nuclear issue, Iran should try to switch from the language of “inalienable rights” to one of pragmatic solutions. This would help depoliticize the issue. The right to independent nuclear research and development under the Non-Proliferation Treaty is not disputed. But rather than insist as a matter of principle on operating the fuel cycle independently under national sovereignty, Iran could engage the Saudis about their idea of a regional joint venture, or explore different options of multilateral consortia with other countries. Iran’s parliament, now led by Ali Larijani, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, could make a strong contribution to confidence building and to the resolution of the nuclear conflict by ratifying the treaty’s Additional Protocol.