THE RECENT tension in the Persian Gulf between Iranian vessels and the US Navy, coming on the heels of the disclosures of the National Intelligence Estimate, highlights the failure of the Bush administration to craft a coherent Iran policy. While the intelligence estimate contradicted persistent White House claims of imminent Iranian nuclear danger and undermined the case for war, the aggressive behavior of the Revolutionary Guard underscores the continued challenge of Iran. Both developments reinforce caution and firmness as the right way to proceed.
The intelligence estimate undercuts the Bush administration's attempt to craft (let alone broaden) an international coalition to impose sanctions against Tehran. There is widespread feeling overseas that the consequences of the judgment that Tehran has suspended its nuclear weapons program should be positive, not punitive. To be sure, the Islamic Republic still has nuclear ambitions, and its expanded uranium enrichment capacity is certainly worrisome. Nonetheless, dialogue and diplomacy are still the best means of mitigating the Iranian challenge. And despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's odious rhetoric and the reckless behavior of Iranian speedboats, there is reason to believe that Tehran may be open to such an approach.
While some have depicted Iran as a rash, militant state imbued with messianic fervor, the clerical state today is an unexceptional opportunistic power seeking to exert preponderance in its immediate neighborhood. Gone are the heady revolutionary days when Iran viewed projection of influence as necessitating the subversion of the incumbent Arab regimes. In the past year, Iran's representatives, particularly the peripatetic Ali Larijani, have made overtures to both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, calling for collective mediation of the region's conflicts. From Iraq's raging sectarian strife to Lebanon's internal convulsions, Iran may well recognize that the best means of stabilizing the Middle East and safeguarding its own interests is through better relations with its longstanding rivals.
The question then becomes can Iran's pragmatic streak be harnessed to accommodate a new relationship with the United States. Any diplomatic approach to Iran will find a confident theocracy seemingly determined to achieve advanced nuclear capability. Russia's recent delivery of uranium shows Iran's ability to interact with outside powers to achieve this objective. To compound the difficulty, Iran's foremost leader, Ali Khamenei, has his own long-held suspicions of the United States, continuously decrying America as a source of cultural contamination and imperial encroachment. Yet, Khamenei has conceded the importance of national interests and recently stated: "We never said that these relations will be suspended indefinitely. . . . Certainly I would be the first to approve of resuming ties with the US the day it is to the benefit of the nation."
The challenge for US diplomacy therefore is to alter Iran's calculus, diminishing its inordinate sense of paranoia while building on its desire for regional stability. The starting point of any cautious and firm approach (as opposed to precipitous reaction) is an appreciation that after the intelligence estimate, there is little domestic or international consensus for the use of force. Moreover, given the dramatic changes that the Middle East has undergone in the last few years, and the removal of the traditional Iraqi barrier to projection of Iran's influence, it is hard to see how Tehran can be isolated. At a time when Iranian officials are welcomed in Arab capitals, and as trade between Iran and its neighbors soars, a regional accord on isolating Iran simply does not exist.
Bush's statements after the intelligence estimate's release emphasized that nothing has changed, that Iran remains a threat. He intends to use his first extended tour of the Middle East to rally support for international pressure against Iran. But the new intelligence estimate requires a revision of tactics toward Iran. That Iran ceased work on its nuclear program several years ago is positive, as it provides an opportunity to start negotiations with Tehran without any preconditions. Moreover, it allows both parties to come to the negotiating table with a constructive tone. If either or both parties come to the table making veiled threats or hurling insults, or even dismissing each other's security concerns, the negotiations naturally will be derailed from the outset.
Now that a nuclear threat is not imminent, the US long-range goal for negotiations with Iran ought to be to create a context in which Iran sees it as in its own self-interest to become more closely associated with the West and the international order. The US approach should reflect the mixed nature of shared as well as conflicting interests with Iran. The stabilization of Iraq, Persian Gulf security, nuclear counterproliferation, among others, should be cast as shared interests. The possibility of growing interaction economically should also be welcomed. At the same time, the United States should be clear that support of terrorism in the region directly threatens the security interests of Iran.
There should not be exaggerated expectations placed on such an approach - it will not produce an immediate panacea. But at a minimum, the pursuit of a calm, strategic policy toward Iran may ensure that a future, more sober, post-Ahmadinejad leadership recognizes that an Iran linked more closely to the West and the international community will be more prosperous and secure.
Mark Brzezinski, an international lawyer in Washington, served on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.