For several years the United States has dealt with two major nuclear proliferation crises, one involving North Korea, the other Iran. The U.S. has accomplished some progress with North Korea, which says it has shut down its reactor at Yongbyon and readmitted inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The same cannot be said of Iran, where there is no indication the impasse will break anytime soon.
Instead of continuing to pursue a policy that has yielded no positive results, or even worse, deciding to escalate the confrontation, the Bush administration should engage Iran with the same proactive diplomacy it has used toward North Korea. As distasteful as it might be to U.S. leaders, that would require an unprecedented willingness to engage the regime in Tehran.
Washington made little progress with the North Koreans until the United States ended its refusal to enter negotiations before they ceased all violations of the 1994 agreement, which was supposed to freeze their nuclear program. Eventually, the U.S. succumbed to pressure from China and East Asian allies and agreed to multilateral negotiations in the form of the six-party talks. But it has only been in the past six months or so that the United States has engaged in direct negotiations with North Korea.
These talks were crucial to the breakthrough that has taken place, and they have involved far more than a narrow focus on the nuclear issue. Washington and Pyongyang are now considering such matters as the normalization of diplomatic and economic relations, the removal of North Korea from the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism, and a treaty to formally end the Korean War.
A U.S. diplomatic initiative involving Iran would require similar characteristics. Direct, high-level negotiations between Washington and Tehran — far more rigorous than the sporadic U.S.-Iranian talks on Iraq — would be imperative. A useful step would be for President Bush to appoint a prominent special envoy, perhaps former secretary of state James Baker, to represent the United States.
Moreover, those negotiations would have to concern more than Iran's nuclear program or the future of Iraq. Indeed, they would need to encompass the entire range of U.S.-Iranian relations. Topics would have to include removal of U.S. and U.N. economic sanctions and the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, as well as the explicit end of Tehran's quest to build nuclear weapons.
One should have no illusions about such an initiative. The obstacles to success would be even greater than they have been with North Korea. Whereas North Korea is a small, impoverished state, Iran is a midsize power with considerable political and economic clout. And although Russia helps Iran with its nuclear program, it lacks the patronage power that China has exerted on its client North Korea.
The nature of a resolution of the nuclear issue would also likely be different. North Korea has (at least in principle) agreed to give up its entire nuclear program in exchange for concessions from the United States, Japan and South Korea. It is unlikely that Tehran would agree to such a comprehensive de-nuclearization. Washington may have to accept that reality and focus on achieving sufficient international safeguards to ensure that material from a nuclear power program was not diverted to weapons production.
All of these obstacles are daunting, but if Washington does not adopt a strategy similar to its recent approach toward North Korea, it will soon face highly unpleasant options: accepting Iran as a nuclear-weapons state or launching military strikes to prevent that result.
It's worth trying diplomacy before we reach that point.