Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Back to Iran

All the election excitement has taken some of the spotlight off of Iran in recent weeks. But things are heating up over there. A recap:

Both Iran and Syria have said they're willing to enter into talks with the United States over Iraq, though their sincerity is open to question.

Democrats support direct talks with the two. But the administration's response was curt: Talk is cheap. It insists Syria must first stop harboring militant Palestinians and meddling in Iraq and Lebanon, while Iran must freeze its nuclear activities.

Speaking of which, UN inspectors found traces of plutonium and enriched uranium in an Iranian waste facility, yet more evidence of Iranian ambitions in that area.

So where does it all leave us? The preconditions on Syria are a bit silly, seeing as how achieving those actions would be the whole point of talks. Just talk already. If they go nowhere, we're no worse off than we were before. Removing Syrian support for Hezbollah would be worth the sort of concessions they're likely to demand, notably security guarantees, warmer diplomatic ties and the launch of a peace process with Israel that could lead to the return of captured Syrian territory.

An excellent article on the subject is in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, though you need a subscription to read the whole thing.

Iran's a bit of a different case, because they've stalled long enough over demands they either abandon their nuclear program or make it far less proliferation-friendly. A harder line, with screws applied, is appropriate there. But a lot depends on how badly we want Iranian help in Iraq. Iran wields its regional influence as a bargaining chip, and if we bleed enough in Iraq, it may be a chip we need to buy.

Our best bet there is to maintain a hard line on the nuclear issue: Iran must not get the impression they can wear us down on that, or stall for an appreciable length of time. Meanwhile, dangle a few carrots -- not just direct tit-for-tat arrangements in return for nuclear pliancy, but signaling our willingness to deal favorably on a range of issues if Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions and helps out in Iraq.

What sort of issues? Improved diplomatic and political ties, technological exchanges, an affirmation of Iran's role in the region, economic agreements -- the list of possible inducements is a long one.

By combining an unwavering opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran with a reasonable deadline for compliance, we ensure the nuclear question will be resolved, one way or the other, before Iran gets the bomb. By offering fair and generous carrots as well as the unsmiling stick, we give Iran all sorts of positive inducements to cooperate. The key is to make continuing to pursue a bomb an unattractive option, while providing them a face-saving way to abandon that pursuit.

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