Facing Iran
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page A20

Washington Post

IN AN EFFORT to make the Bush administration's incoherent and failing policy toward Iran look sensible, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage recently claimed that the United States and its European allies were engaged in a classic "good cop, bad cop" maneuver. The administration's refusal to talk to the Iranian government and its threats to use U.N. sanctions or military force to stop Iran's development of nuclear capabilities, he asserted, had helped induce Tehran to strike an interim deal with the Europeans to suspend the program. "If it works," he said of the accord, "we'll all have been successful."

The depressing truth is nearly the opposite. The European agreement with Iran, approved last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency amid loud grumbling from Washington, effectively blocks the Bush administration from taking more forceful action. Meanwhile, the U.S. refusal to cooperate with Europe's strategy is likely to doom the long-term negotiations required by the new agreement. Far from containing Iran, the West's cops stand to neutralize each other, further poisoning transatlantic relations while delighting Iran's hard-liners.

Good and bad cops are effective only when they work together. Attempts by Britain, Germany and France to coordinate their Iranian diplomacy with Washington have failed, largely because Bush administration hard-liners oppose any policy not aimed at "regime change." Mr. Bush's hawks command the moral high ground: They are right that the "evil" Iranian regime has suppressed its people's democratic aspirations, sponsored terrorism and violated its legal commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The problem is that they offer no realistic policy of their own. Military action short of an all-out invasion probably couldn't stop the Iranian nuclear program. The hawks speak of supporting a democratic revolution inside Iran, but none seems likely soon, and many of Iran's democrats also want the bomb.

Since the United States already sanctions Iran and boycotts its government, the most practical means of influence available to the administration involve carrots, not sticks. Conversely, since European nations negotiate and do business with Iran -- and the Iranian government desperately needs foreign investment and trade to prop up its economy -- a threat by Britain, France and Germany to support U.N. or even Western sanctions could have enormous influence in Tehran. The United States won't use carrots, nor the Europeans sticks, on their own. But a coordinated transatlantic strategy that employed both these levers -- the prospect of a general Western economic boycott, or security guarantees and economic concessions from the same alliance -- might work.

It might not; maybe there is no practical way to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Even then, however, the United States would be better off if it had joined with its major European allies in facing this threat, rather than remaining mired in quarreling as Iran builds bombs with impunity. Iran's current regime is surely repugnant, but once armed with nuclear weapons, it will be far more dangerous. Common sense argues for trying diplomacy that might head off this danger, rather than jeering -- and doing nothing -- from the moral high ground.