[OVERSEAS VIEW]Iraq now has the West over a barrel of oilLast week, the United States reversed course on Iran, declaring that it was ready to join its allies (Britain, France, Germany) in nuclear talks with a country to which it has refused diplomatic relations since 1979. But there is a condition, Secretary of State Rice said: Tehran must first suspend its nuclear fuel program, the stuff that goes into the making of a bomb.
Promptly, her Iranian colleague said “yes” ― and then “no.” Iran would talk, but it would not accept any conditions, nor make “concessions” where its “legitimate interests” were concerned. We, the Europeans, have been through this before.
In fact, the European trio of Britain, France and Germany have been talking ― no, pleading ― with the Iranians for three years. They have offered plenty of carrots, such as support for Iran’s civilian nuclear program, if the regime stopped short of the kind of enrichment (of uranium) and reprocessing (of plutonium) that produces bomb-grade materials.
To no avail. The Iranians have talked and stalled for three years while moving tenaciously toward a weapons option.
They actually made fun of the Europeans by finally telling them there was nothing London, Berlin and Paris could offer them that would make them cease and desist.
The explanation is simple and consists of three parts. One, the Iranians clearly want the option to make a bomb. Two, the price of oil. At $70 a barrel, which bespeaks a structural excess of demand over supply, nobody can even contemplate serious economic sanctions that would make the Iranian economy grind to a halt. And three, diplomacy without the credible use of force is bound to remain fruitless. Yes, the United States and the West could obliterate Iranian nuclear facilities, but this would not be a cakewalk. It would require a massive and protracted military campaign.
The real problem here is the war in Iraq ― a war where the U.S. attacked the wrong enemy at the wrong time.
Iraq was a strategic blunder of the first order because revolutionary Iran, and not a weakened and isolated Saddam Hussein, represented the greatest threat to American interests and stability in the Middle East.
It is Tehran that has been supporting terrorism around the world, and it is Tehran that has been working on a nuclear option since the days of the Shah while threatening the existence of Israel.
The irony could not be more dramatic. By going after Saddam, the U.S. ended up improving Iran’s strategic position tenfold. First, the United States took out the greatest threat to Iraq by eliminating Saddam Hussein, who back in 1980 had forced an eight-year war on his neighbor, with a million dead on both sides. Second, the United States liberated an oppressed Shia majority and handed Iran’s comrades-in-faith pre-eminence in Iraqi politics. Finally, the United States entangled itself in a costly, inconclusive insurgency war that Tehran can manipulate at will.
As a result, the strategic position of the Iranians has never been better, and they know it. First, Tehran told the Europeans to go fly a kite; no, they would not abandon the road to nuclear weapons. Then, they repeated the message to the rest of the world, including the Russians and the Chinese. Then, they started waving the oil weapon, while threatening Israel with extinction.
As well they might. They know that the United States will not launch another war while the one in Iraq is not exactly proceeding to schedule.
Should the United States do so anyway, Iran will unleash its terror armies throughout the region and hit tanker traffic in the Gulf. One tanker will be enough to double the price of oil. Or put it this way: How much punch can diplomacy deliver when it is disjoined from the credible threat of force?
This is where we are today. Diplomacy without swords is just words, and so the Iranians will continue their cat-and-mouse game while busily assembling their centrifuges in Natanz until they have enough in the so-called “cascade” to enrich uranium to the 90-plus percent level where it yields bomb-grade material.
Is there no good news? What about the American offer to join the negotiations? What we saw last week is the beginning of a diplomatic dance. It will go back and forth for a while, and since neither the Iranians nor the West want to be stuck with the onus of refusing talks, the two sides will eventually sit down somewhere ― probably in neutral Switzerland.
And there, the dance will continue.
A country that believes in its God-given right to be the dominant power in the Middle East will not give up the ultimate status symbol of nuclear weapons. The best we can hope for is time, provided that the Iranians suspend their enrichment activities while the talks continue.
So let’s see whether they are serious. If they add centrifuges to the cascade, we will know that they are not. But why should they be serious while they have the West over a barrel of oil? And while the United States is stuck in the Iraqi trap that makes a military option against Iran as probable as a heat wave in the middle of winter?
* The writer, the publisher-editor of Die Zeit in Germany, is currently teaching U.S. foreign policy at Stanford University, where he is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
by Josef Joffe