Several reports have surfaced indicating that the U.S. government has plans to launch a preventive war against Iran.
President Bush recently ratcheted up his rhetoric, saying that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable," and other administration officials have used the term "intolerable."
Politicians and pundits across the spectrum seem to agree.
Some analysts hold out hope that EU-led diplomacy will defuse the crisis. If that strategy fails, they believe that UN-authorized economic sanctions could bring Iran to heel. Yet neither the historical record on nuclear proliferation (e.g., India and Pakistan) nor our recent experience with Iraq inspires much confidence in the effectiveness of sanctions.
Still, why leap to the military option? Although negotiations haven't yielded much thus far, that's because they haven't been nearly broad enough. To determine whether the Iranian regime is willing to give up its quest for nuclear weapons, the administration must offer it a grand bargain.
The Iranian government presents a laundry list of grievances against the United States. At the top is fear that the United States may attack Iran, as Washington attacked Serbia and Iraq. Bush's linkage of Iran to Iraq in his "axis of evil" speech did nothing to reassure the Iranians.
Tehran also complains about the lack of diplomatic relations and the decades-old system of U.S. economic sanctions. Until those issues are addressed, there is little hope of progress on the nuclear front.
At bottom, the United States has one prevailing interest in Iran: stopping it from getting nuclear weapons. Although the Bush administration believes the Iranians are not negotiating in good faith, there is a straightforward way to find out: offer them a grand bargain that gives them what they want in exchange for giving up a capability to build nukes.
The United States should offer Iran full normalization of relations, including a public promise not to attack it, restored diplomatic relations, and normalized economic relations. In return, Iran would need to give up any prospect of building a nuclear arsenal. Iran would be required to immediately open its existing nuclear program to unfettered international inspections.
There are potential problems with that bargain, to be sure. The first problem is that Iran hawks in Washington will inevitably characterize such a deal as "appeasement" of the Iranian regime and a moral endorsement of the mullahs' repressive rule. They will say that it is not sufficiently sensitive to the plight of Iranians living under tyranny.
The Iranian regime is undoubtedly odious. But one of the requirements of an effective foreign policy is to engage with unpleasant regimes when America's national interest requires that step. This is one of those cases.
Moreover, do hawks genuinely believe that the alternative to a grand bargain -- preventive military strikes, perhaps involving up to 400 targets, some of them beneath densely populated urban centers -- is sensitive to the plight of Iranians?
Are we to believe that such a policy, which would involve thousands of civilian deaths, is the policy that best serves the interests of the Iranian people?
Another problem: the Iranian government might balk at intrusive, on-demand inspections of a civilian nuclear program. If the United States is unwilling to accept an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, however, Washington must hold firm on this point. Otherwise, Tehran would still be able to divert civilian nuclear technology to build an arsenal.
Offering a grand bargain has more benefits than downsides, however.
One, it would test the Iranian side's faith immediately, without endless haranguing over peripheral or esoteric issues. We would determine rather quickly whether negotiations would be worth the breath.
More importantly, with a full-scale deal on the table, the Iranians would have no excuses to back away. If they refused the deal, there would be only one conclusion to draw: Tehran is irreversibly determined to develop nuclear weapons.
But the biggest and most profound benefit of the deal is that it holds a reasonable chance of resolving the conflict without going to war. According to the New Yorker, existing U.S. war planning is based on the assumption that "a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government."
Even if that assumption were accurate -- and it almost certainly is not -- what would happen next? A strategic, oil-supplying Islamic country of 70 million people, presumably with its infrastructure in shambles, would be in chaos. Plunging the entire Persian Gulf region into anarchy would be one of the worst strategic blunders in American history.
Washington needs to make every diplomatic effort to stop Iran from getting a bomb before we start a war with that country. A comprehensive initiative may not work in the end, but considering the options currently on the table, offering the Iranians a grand bargain seems rather low-cost.