Sanctions Won't Stop Tehran

By Selig S. Harrison, who has written extensively about Iran and North Korea for The Post. He directs the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and is the author of "Korean Endgame" (THE WASHINGTON POST, 02/10/07):

Suppose that the Bush administration abandons its campaign for economic sanctions, tones down talk of war and opens direct negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program. Suppose also that it drops its insistence on the suspension of uranium enrichment as a precondition for dialogue.

Would Iran accept the terms for denuclearization accepted by North Korea in the direct negotiations that led to the Feb. 13 agreement with Pyongyang and that are now being implemented in fits and starts: a no-attack pledge, normalized economic and diplomatic relations, economic aid, and removal from the U.S. list of terrorist states?

Based on a week of high-level discussions in Tehran recently and on previous visits during earlier stages of the nuclear program, my assessment is that Iran would demand much tougher terms, including a freeze of Israel's Dimona reactor and a ban on the U.S. use of nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf.

Both supporters and opponents of Iran's clerical regime favor developing a civilian nuclear program, not only for electricity generation but also because it can be upgraded to produce nuclear weapons. But Tehran is not in a hurry to invoke its nuclear option, I was told, and is prepared for a verifiable ceiling on its uranium program that would bar weapons-grade enrichment in return for U.S. security concessions.

Such concessions, several officials suggested, would have to go beyond pledges not to attack or to seek "regime change" through covert operations. Alireza Akbari, an adviser to Iran's National Security Council and a former deputy defense minister, was one of those who proposed a freeze of Israel's Dimona reactor and some form of bilateral or multilateral U.S. commitment not to use or deploy nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf. "How do we know that your four aircraft carriers stationed off our coasts are not equipped with tactical nuclear weapons?" he asked.

Significantly, no one I met demanded the elimination of the approximately 200 nuclear weapons that Israel is believed to have already produced at Dimona or called for a U.S. pledge not to use or deploy nuclear weapons that would extend beyond the Gulf and would nullify the U.S. security commitment to Israel.

There are three major reasons why preventing an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would be much more difficult than getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

First, Iran has petroleum riches. Unlike Pyongyang, it doesn't need a deal for economic reasons.

Second, the Iran-Iraq war, in which an estimated 200,000 Iranians were killed, is still a searing memory in Tehran. "If we had possessed nuclear weapons then, Saddam would not have dared to attack us," says Amir Mohabian, editor of the influential conservative daily Reselaat.

Third, Iran has a strong sense of historically based national identity and wants nuclear weapons primarily to assert major-power status. Kim Jong Il presides over an insecure regime struggling for short-term survival. He has developed nuclear weapons to deter U.S. military and financial pressures that threaten his immediate power and perquisites. The two Koreas would have to confederate and later reunify before Korea could achieve major-power status.

The drive for recognition as a major power has motivated Iran's nuclear ambitions from the start. The late Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi initiated the weapons program 34 years ago, with the help of U.S. and European companies, as part of an effort to establish himself as a nationalist modernizer who would restore the regional preeminence Tehran had intermittently enjoyed in earlier centuries.

To be sure, concern about what was then a nascent Israeli nuclear weapons program and the desire for civilian nuclear energy to supplement petroleum made the acquisition of nuclear technology attractive. But the shah wanted visible progress in nuclear development primarily to enhance his domestic political stature, I was told by Jafar Nadim, then undersecretary of foreign affairs, during a 1978 visit to Tehran. It would be a symbol of Persian technological superiority over Arabs, Nadim said, and would "help us to get the respect we feel we deserve from you people. You should understand, we Persians have a very ancient, very advanced culture, yet we have been a victim of so many insults and invasions, and now we have to stand up."

After winning the presidency in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recognized that nuclear weapons could be used as an emotive symbol of sovereignty. He has systematically exploited nationalist resentment of U.S. pressure on the nuclear issue to strengthen his position in dealing with the United States and to counter domestic political rivals.

The drive for sanctions will only strengthen Ahmadinejad. In place of economic and military pressure, the United States should seek to defuse the Iranian nuclear danger through bilateral and multilateral dialogue that addresses Iranian and U.S. security concerns from Dimona to the Strait of Hormuz and, eventually, includes all of Iran's key regional neighbors, including Israel.