By Barbara Slavin
Of all the foreign policy challenges facing President Bush in his second term, none apart from Iraq looms larger than Iran.
Twenty-five years after Iranian students seized U.S. diplomats as hostages, Iran and the United States are at the brink of a potentially more serious confrontation over Iran's apparent determination to develop a nuclear bomb.
Iran says it wants nuclear energy to generate electricity and has the right to manufacture reactor fuel. The United States has left negotiations to its European allies, who have managed to slow but not stop Iran's nuclear drive. Israel, which blew up an Iraqi reactor in 1981 when Iraq had begun a similar program, has warned it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. So has President Bush. "Our position is that they won't have a nuclear weapon," Bush told Fox News Sept. 27.
The situation is so volatile that officials and foreign policy experts in both Iran and the USA say the possibility of armed conflict is real. "All options are on the table," Bush told Fox News.
Asked about the status of relations recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi was blunt. "It's very bad," he told reporters Sept. 29 in New York, where he attended the United Nations General Assembly. "The question is if it can be changed or not, and if this is in the interest of Americans, Iranians and (other) people in the region to continue this animosity."
Iran is a top priority for at least three reasons:
Nuclear proliferation. U.S. estimates of how long it will take Iran to be able to make a nuclear weapon range from one to four years.
Iraq. Iran, which shares a lengthy border with Iraq, has close ties to Iraqi Shiite groups that could determine Iraq's political future. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, Oct. 4 that the Iranians "clearly want to affect the outcome of the (Iraqi) election, and they are aggressively trying to do that. They're sending money in. They're sending weapons in." Iraq's elections are set for January.
Terrorism. Iran supports Hezbollah and other anti-Israeli groups that have conducted numerous attacks and suicide bombings in Israel. Iran has also said it is holding al-Qaeda members who escaped from Afghanistan. In return for them, Iran wants the United States to hand over leaders of an Iranian opposition group based in Iraq.
Bush is pushing for an early confrontation with Iran at the United Nations by urging the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council unless it promises not to produce nuclear fuel. The Security Council could levy punishing sanctions against Iran. The IAEA will meet to consider the issue Nov. 25. Iran has suspended enrichment of uranium, a nuclear fuel, for a year but is threatening to resume it.
But council action is by no means certain. Alternatively, the use of force could be ineffective and backfire. Destroying the nuclear program would be difficult if not impossible, because facilities are dispersed throughout Iran and much of the infrastructure is underground. Airstrikes could retard Iran's progress, but the cost could be high. Iran's hard-line Islamic government has warned that any attack on Iran would provoke a violent response, and the United States has much at risk in the region, with its troops fighting a growing insurgency in Iraq.
For a generation before the hostage crisis in 1979, Iran and the United States were close allies. In 1953, the CIA overthrew an elected government that had nationalized the oil industry, and it reinstalled a pro-U.S. monarch, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
Relations reached their peak in the early 1970s when Richard Nixon was president. "Under the Nixon doctrine, the United States relied on regional powers such as Iran" to contain Soviet influence, says Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia and an expert on Iran. Relations plummeted after the shah was overthrown in a revolution led by Islamic fundamentalists in 1979.
Asked to rate relations now on a scale of one to 10 with 10 being relations under the shah and one the hostage crisis in 1979 Bakhash says, "we're barely at four."
Iran's economy minister was even more negative. "We're at zero," Seyyed Safdar Hosseini said in an interview Oct. 6 in Washington, where he attended the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
He criticized the Bush administration for making demands on Iran but offering nothing in return. He blamed the administration for blocking Iran's repeated efforts to join the World Trade Organization, despite what he said was Iran's compliance with requirements that it eliminate many of its trade barriers. And he insisted the nuclear program was important for Iran's economic development: "After 25 years, the U.S. should admit that Iran is an independent country based on the support of its people and is following rational policies."
Despite having no formal diplomatic relations since 1980, the two governments have had contacts.
The most tangible thaw came after the election in 1997 of Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric, as Iranian president. The Clinton administration eased U.S. economic sanctions slightly in 2000 to permit trade in food, medicine and carpets. But divisions within the Iranian government between hard-liners who wanted no relations with the United States and moderates who favored engagement prevented direct official talks.
Direct talks finally began secretly in Geneva in 2002 as an outgrowth of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. The United States and Iran found common cause in deposing the Taliban government, which had persecuted Shiite Muslims and murdered Iranian diplomats and journalists. But the meetings ended in May 2003 after they were reported by the media and a series of bombings in Saudi Arabia was linked to al-Qaeda members who the Iranians say are under house arrest.
A new opportunity to talk at a high level could come this month, when Secretary of State Colin Powell is to attend a meeting in Egypt of foreign ministers from Iraq's neighbors and major industrial nations. Those attending will be "all together in a room, talking about the region and talking about how we can bring stability to that part of the world, beginning with Iraq," Powell said in an interview with the al-Jazeera television network Sept. 29. "And if the Iranians are in the meeting and wish to talk in a responsible manner about this problem, I will be in the room, too."
European officials say the Europeans have to be more willing to punish Iran, while the United States must be willing to offer Iran incentives for giving up efforts to produce nuclear fuel.
"An effective policy is bound to require carrots as well as sticks," says Chris Patten, former external affairs commissioner for the 25-nation European Union. "We have to be able to put a package to Iran that gives Iran an opportunity to play a normal role regionally and internationally." A must, Patten says, is assurances from the United States, which "as the world's only superpower is the country Iran is most concerned about."
Before the U.S. elections Nov. 2, Powell was cautious about making any promises. "I can't envision anything until I know whether the Iranians are willing to forewear their nuclear ambitions," Powell said in an interview Oct. 18.
Whether that attitude will change remains to be seen.
"We have very powerful mutual interests that need to be addressed," says William Miller, an Iran scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington research organization.