Middle East

Could a different option with Iran work?

Technicians inside the Isfahan uranium conversion facility in central Iran, October 2004
Image caption Iran's nuclear programme continues to grow

How do you solve a problem like Iran's nuclear programme? Especially when Iran does not see it as a problem and elevates what it says is a peaceful drive for nuclear energy to the status of a national cause?

The UN Security Council wrestled with this question again in June and came up with the same old answer: another round of sanctions. There was majority support from the 15 members because many were worried the Iranians might be secretly trying to build a nuclear bomb.

But no votes from Turkey and Brazil showed cracks in the consensus, a signal of unease with a policy that has so far failed to change Iran's behaviour and of fears that it may lead to confrontation.

Even amongst those Iranians most opposed to their government, there is little appetite for sanctions. One of the most outspoken is Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Persian studies at New York's Columbia University.

Mr Dabashi supports the opposition Green Movement, launched after Iran's controversial presidential election last year. He gives space to dissident Iranian voices, among them artists and musicians, in weekly webcasts which have become tribunes for change in Iran.

But Mr Dabashi believes sanctions will hurt Iran's people rather than its leaders. And he is afraid they could be used as a pretext to further repress the struggle for democratic rights.

Domestic pressure

"The most enduring effect of the sanctions would be that the budding civil rights movement would be immediately severely crushed," he says.

"In fact, [its members] would be blamed for the sanctions."

Even the head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, has admitted in an interview with ABC Television that sanctions probably will not convince Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions. So why use them?

US domestic politics plays a role: there is a strong lobby in Congress for tough action against Iran which President Barack Obama cannot ignore.

He also cannot ignore the risk of an Israeli military strike if something is not done. Israel has nuclear weapons, most experts say, yet it sees a nuclear Iran as a threat to its existence.

Crucially, Mr Obama says Iran has failed to respond to an offer of engagement, first made in his inaugural speech and pursued for more than a year - so pressure has to be used.

That is a claim some critics reject.

Common ground

"I'd argue we've not seriously tried negotiation," says Gary Sick, a former member of the US National Security Council.

Image caption Memories of the war with Iraq are still fresh in Iranian minds

"We said to Iran, when the Obama administration first came in, we're ready to negotiate. And Iran was slow in responding, going through a political crisis of its own, and we said 'well, we can't do that', so we walked away from it."

But there is a lot to talk about, says Suzanne Dimaggio, director of policy studies at the Asia Society think tank. First, there should be recognition that Iran has legitimate security concerns too, shaped by its environment and history.

"The Iranians make it clear that they live in a tough neighbourhood surrounded by nuclear weapons states: Pakistan, Russia and Israel," says Ms Dimaggio.

"They also have two major wars on their borders."

Iranians also have strong memories of their devastating eight-year war with Iraq, when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against them while the West did nothing.

The argument here is that any negotiations which focus only on Iran's nuclear programme will not work. The agenda must be broader, covering concerns that matter to both Iran and the US.

"What kind of security atmosphere do Iranians want to see in their neighbours, Iraq and Afghanistan?" asks Ms Dimaggio.

"What are the possibilities of forming some sort of co-operative agreements around stabilising both countries? These are the sorts of issues where I think the US should start pursuing more active engagement."

Mr Sick admits even broader negotiations would not be easy. The ongoing political crisis has made the Iranian government reluctant to take decisions, let alone make concessions.

But without negotiation what is left? A sanctions policy that has not worked, a nuclear programme that Iran sees as its national right but Israel will not tolerate, and the fear that one day these contending pressures may erupt into war.

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