The Iran Game, Round Two

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Kayhan Barzegar 

How is the world different if Iran DOESN'T have a nuclear weapons program, as the CIA now says?

The dominant debate here in America nowadays is that Iran will be America’s main challenge in the years to come. I would say the Bush administration has made Iran a challenge in at least in two ways: Iran’s nuclear weapons threat, and Iran’s rise to the status of regional power. Thanks to the NIE report, at least the first of these has been reduced, and therefore the possibility of going into an unwanted war is now lower.

The world is of course different from the perspective of the beneficiaries and the losers of the Iran’s nuclear threat game. We see a change here. Middle East politicians have long played the ‘Iran card’ to benefit from the U.S. But this round of the Iran Nuclear Threat Game was a pinnacle: almost everyone had their own game to play. Some Arab regimes made themselves dearer for the U.S.; the Russians got involved in Middle East politics; the Israelis took all the key Arab countries to Annapolis; the new French leadership started to show France as a key player in the EU, etc.

The losers here were Iran and United States, who were about to go into an unfortunate unnecessary war. Now, the Iranians and Americans are the beneficiaries. It is time that the two sides sit down and think about their own interests in this game, too.

The second part of the game remains: Iran’s role in the region. One positive point in the NIE report is Iran’s “cost-benefit attitude” toward the region. The Bush administration should consider a few things before starting the game’s second round. Iran has two aims for its presence in the region: to secure its immediate neighborhood, and to create economic opportunities. For Washington, a key point to understand is that Iran will not accept unfriendly elites and political parties in its immediate neighborhood, where wars and tensions have already been a major, costly obstacle to Iran’s economic advancement.

Washington should also change its approach to working with the Iranian elites. Instead of indirect action and communication, and shows of force, Washington should address the Iranians directly, face to face, and advance a win-win game. Iran’s concerns in the region are more strategic and pragmatic. The time has come for the Bush administration to accept that installing a Shiite government in Iraq requires Iran’s engagement – and that that government’s success, as a part of a new American political order, will require that the U.S. address Iran’s concerns simultaneously.

Should Iran be allowed to build a nuclear power program with no inspections or obstructions?

It is not a matter of allowing or not allowing Iran to build. It’s a matter of how to deal with the existing reality, and how to see the issue from its other side. Instead of focusing on the destructive aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, it is the time to manage and work on its constructive parts. The fact of the matter is that much has been completed that cannot be reversed: research projects begun, work finished, talent developed, money spent. The best way therefore is to calm down and let the IAEA go ahead with the defined tasks of NPT inspections - no more, no less. Let’s not forget that Iran is a young rising nation that would like to develop its own specific and independent ways of advancement in all issues, including democracy, the economy, etc. Its nuclear program is no exception.

Kayhan Barzegar is a Research Fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard university's Kennedy School of Government. He teaches international relations and Iran's foreign policy in Tehran.


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