Published in “Die ZEIT” on December 5, 2009
Source (German):

Despite the labored nuclear program: In the relations with Iran, threats will not be of any help
By Christoph Bertram

Has the final say in the nuclear conflict as well: Iran's leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: © Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

The situation seems to be exasperating, or evoking resignation. In the beginning of this year, it looked like an agreement with Iran would be possible; now, at the end of the year, all hopes have evaporated. Those who wonder how the West is supposed to deal with the Islamic Republic and its rulers in the future are well advised to remember how the West dealt with another strongheaded antagonist during the Cold War – the Soviet Union.

Unlike Iran, that is years away from having its own nuclear bomb, the Soviet Union was a nuclear giant bristling with weapons. Its leadership had even threatened to “bury” the West – according to Kremlin chief Khrushtshev in the late fifties. The Soviet empire reached far into Europe, more than 1 million soldiers stood face to face at the German-German border. The rivalry between East and West encompassed the globe, and even spread out into space. The Western counter-strategy comprised of two approaches: detente and deterrence. And, certainly also as thanks to Michail Gorbachev’s active help, it eventually succeeded after 40 years.

The strategy on Iran, dominated by the United States, so far has been short-winded, short-sighted and ineffective. An extensive negotiation offer submitted by Tehran in 2001 was sent to the trash by Washington without further ado. When Iran, urged by the European Union, temporarily stopped enriching uranium, expecting a quid pro quo from America, the Bush administration turned a deaf ear. Instead, sanctions were imposed, and threats of military punishment were issued. The U.S.A., the EU, and finally the UN Security Council even demanded from Iran to suspend any kind of enrichment as a precondition for negotiations.

Thus, it should not surprise us that Iran accelerated its nuclear efforts instead of stopping them. Even though nobody can be sure whether this is driven by the intention to become a military nuclear power, one thing is certain: Iran has gradually come closer to being able to be a military nuclear power. If Iran succeeded, this would not plunge the Near East into an atomic war – as an offensive weapon the bomb is useless. However, if Iran as a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty was allowed to violate the major obligation of this treaty unpunished and unimpeded, nuclear wannabes in the region and beyond could hardly be stopped.

This unemotional insight caused Barack Obama to take the risk of a new strategy immediately after taking office. Instead of threatening Iran, he issued an offer to hold talks with Tehran on a basis of mutual respect. Even in the face of the brutal crack down on the protetsts that were following the presidential elections in Iran in June he maintained restraint in order not to destroy the chance for a fresh start.

There was even an exchange of letters between Iran’s “Supreme Leader” Khamenei and the American President. Iran formally announced its readiness for comprehensive talks, precluding, however, the controversial discussion about Iran’s own nuclear program. In September information emerged about a new and so far undisclosed enrichment facility being under construction near Qom. Shortly afterwards, some still placed their hopes on the plan concocted by the Head of the Nuclear Agency in Vienna: Tehran could be persuaded to send its low enriched uranium to Russia for further processing. However, to no avail. Instead, Iran now has announced a further extension of nuclear activities.

Now here we stand: back to square one, back to Bush, back to the start. Although Obama’s hand is still outstretched, he has not yet clenched his fist. He intends to adhere to his offer of comprehensive negotiations until the end of the year. The prospects of a serious response from Tehran are low. The hardliners have prevailed even more after the events of last June revealed to them how fragile their own regime is, and increased their fear of too much contact with the West.

Obama’s ambitious initiative is about to fail. Nothing shows this more clearly than his call for sanctions – just like his predecessor did. In case the deadline of 31. December 2009 will expire with no results, the president will impose tougher, stricter, and more effective sanctions on Iran, and he already is campaigning for Russia’s, China’s, and Europe’s support.

But does anybody seriously believe that further sanctions will motivate the leadership in Tehran to abandon their nuclear program, even if – implausible though it may be – the international community backed them? It is not enough that such economic constraints will cause suffering for the population – they must also have the capacity of changing the behavior of the rulers. Those, however, have not only gotten used to sanctions over the past decades. Being rulers of the second-largest oil and gas reserves in the world, they may also hope for relief due to the demands for energy that exist not only in China.

Thus, the frantic attempt to create a new coalition for sanctions against Iran is no more than a cover-up for the fact that even Obama does no longer know what to do. Some might be quite pleased by this, for example, the governments in Israel and the neo-cons on both sides of the Atlantic, to whom Obama’s approach already looked highly suspicious. But is there really nothing more to it?

That would be similarly foolish as it would have been to terminate the policy of detente during the Cold War. Absolutely impossible to imagine what would have happened if the West had set a deadline of a couple of months for Moscow, implying that it would no longer be ready to search for compromises after the deadline ran out. The Iron Curtain would probably still be there. Iran is an important country, not only for its energy resources. Iran also has the region’s largest population, and, as the events in June revealed again, also the most modern and cosmopolitan civil society. An yet the West seriously wants to abdicate its most effective tool, which reads “convergence via detente”, just because their attempts did not succeed within a couple of weeks? Iran’s mistrust against the West has been growing for too long a time and is too deeply rooted, and the events accompanying the presidential election have fueled this feeling within the leadership. And in Washington the feeling of mistrust is also running too deep, even with Obama’s team – the wounds that the hostage drama has left have not yet healed.

Obama is the first US president in 60 years who has not been shaped by the experience of the Cold War. However, there is no reason to forget about the lessons of those years. Just like in the conflict with the Soviet Union, the West can only win if it insists on detente and deterrence in the relations with Iran. The risk is low. That this will stop Tehran’s nuclear activity is unlikely, however, no other Western strategy could stop it either. On the contrary – threatening gestures would only accelerate it. In the long term, though, the search for a convergence of interests is the only way to create a chance for the mutual mistrust to be reduced, the sphere of parallel interests to be expanded, and to gain influence on the inner development and the external behavior of the Islamic Republic.

This was the case with the Soviet Union, this was how the Cold War could come to an end. This is what Barack Obama should keep in mind in his approach towards Iran, this is what he should be promoting in his still sceptic country before the useless, self-imposed deadline of end of December will expire. And his European allies, who are the greatest beneficiaries of the East-West-detente, should finally start to actively support him.