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Policy Watch: Iran's Atomic Offer

Washington (UPI) Dec 19, 2005
Something odd occurred earlier this month in Tehran. In the midst of several belligerent statements made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about America and Israel came something of an olive branch from the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

The ministry's spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, was quoted as saying that "America can take part in international bidding for the construction of Iran's nuclear power plant."

Washington has long voiced the view that oil rich Iran does not need to develop atomic power, and that Tehran only wants a nuclear reactor (which the Russians are building) in order to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran, for its part, has long denied any such intention. Britain, France, and Germany have sought to mediate the crisis that has developed over the Iranian atomic energy program, but even they seem to have become increasingly skeptical about Iran's intentions.

In the midst of Ahmadinejad's hostile statements and the inability of the Europeans to defuse tensions over Iran's nuclear program, what could possibly be the meaning of the Iranian Foreign Ministry's extraordinary offer to allow the "Great Satan" a role in it?

Many in Washington have already dismissed the offer out of hand. Why on earth should the U.S. help Iran build a nuclear reactor which Tehran will use to develop nuclear weapons with? Even if this could be prevented, surely Tehran understands that Washington would not take up such an offer when Ahmadinejad is issuing belligerent statements and when tensions are already high between the two countries over many issues, including Israel and Iraq.

This offer was only made, then, with the expectation that Washington would reject it, thus allowing the Iranian government to tell its own people that it tried to cooperate with the U.S. but was refused. The Iranian offer, then, is not serious.

The appeal of this line of reasoning to the U.S. government is understandable. But before dismissing the Iranian offer entirely, Washington would do well to consider treating it seriously. There are three reasons why.

The first has to do with American interests. Washington would clearly prefer that Iran not acquire any nuclear reactors at all. But if it is going to acquire them anyway, the U.S. would be better off playing a role in the process than allowing the Iranian atomic energy program to be completely dominated by Russia. Moscow's assurances that it will be able to stop Tehran from diverting spent fuel for military purposes from the reactor the Russians are building are surely unreliable.

Washington would have much greater opportunity to prevent such a diversion -- or at least seeing whether it occurs -- if it played a role in the Iranian atomic energy program than if it continues not to. And if Tehran's offer is at all serious, those who made it must know that American participation in the Iranian atomic energy program will only occur in exchange for tight oversight over it.

The second reason has to do with Russia. Russia is completing the first nuclear reactor for Iran and hopes to build several others for it. Russia under Putin, though, is becoming increasingly hostile toward the U.S. For Russia and Iran to work together against the U.S. is not in American interests.

America, then, would be better off having some role to play in Iran that counterbalances Russian influence and provides an incentive to Tehran not to cooperate with Moscow against Washington. The Iranian offer for America to take part in its atomic energy program presents an opportunity to do this.

The third reason has to do with Iranian domestic politics (and the politics of revolutionary regimes generally). Many observers have noted that revolutionary regimes are not monolithic, but usually contain moderate and extremist factions which vie for supremacy.

Moderates, such as former Iranian President Khatami, seek improved relations with America and the West in order to acquire the aid, trade, and investment that leads to economic prosperity. Extremists such as Ahmadinejad, by contrast, fear normal relations with America and the West since this undercuts support for them.

They need to have an atmosphere of crisis with the U.S. that rallies popular support for them. This also allows the extremists to undercut the moderates who can be portrayed as traitors if they argue for improved relations with the U.S. when their country is facing a crisis with it.

Unfortunately, Washington usually helps the extremists achieve their goal of weakening their moderate rivals by returning hostility with hostility. This, however, is playing into Ahmadinejad's hands.

If Washington really wanted to undermine him, it would -- as difficult and distasteful as it might seem -- make concerted efforts to strengthen the moderates within the regime who do want to work with the U.S. One way to do so would be to express an American willingness both to seriously discuss Tehran's offer and to actually take part in the Iranian atomic energy program if acceptable safeguards can be worked out.

Such an American initiative, of course, might not succeed. The Bush administration might justifiably fear that Tehran only wants the U.S. to participate in building atomic reactors because it prefers to steal American rather than Russian technology for its nuclear weapons program. But obviously, serious American cooperation with Iran would not occur unless Tehran agreed to safeguards acceptable to Washington.

If Ahmadinejad spurns any such American offer, this would be further evidence in support of the Bush administration's argument that Tehran really is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. Perhaps the greatest danger is that he would not spurn it, but would endlessly drag out negotiations over the terms of American participation in the Iranian atomic energy program while secretly working on nuclear weapons all the while.

Building a bomb, though, is something Tehran can work on whether it negotiates with the U.S. or not. An ongoing Iranian-American negotiating process would better serve than the absence of one to strengthen the moderates as well as the more reasonable conservatives in Iran willing to cooperate with the U.S.

Washington, then, should not reject or ignore this Iranian offer, but explore it instead. The prospect for advancing American interests, thwarting hostile Russian ones, and strengthening the hand of Iranian political factions willing to explore cooperation with the U.S. all make it worth discussing seriously with Tehran.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

Source: United Press International

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