In search of a more sensible way to deal with Iran

25 August 2006
It is said in the West that Iran's President Ahmadinejad is dangerously unbalanced and, potentially, a political leader in the mould of Adolf Hitler. His violent comments about Israel are cited to support efforts to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear technology. The issue rose to the top of the UN agenda at the end of August, the Security Council deadline for Iran to stop its enrichment programme.
International sanctions are almost inevitable. But these are rarely quickly effective and can have perverse effects. And once applied, they remain longer than anyone imagined: it is impossible envisaging any US president being prepared to argue for sanctions to be lifted until there is complete regime change in Tehran.

The Security Council will not seek an embargo that would block Iranian oil exports. The world is heading towards an extended period of selective penalties that is unlikely to alter Iranian behaviour in the short term and will reward sanctions cheats and evaders. But this is probably the most the world can do to signal its objections to Iranian plans.

The war option seems to be off the agenda, though it might return in two years in the run-up to the 2008 US presidential poll. There is time to consider what the right long-term approach to Iran should be.

The first priority is to face facts. Iran has a revolutionary regime with a clear view on domestic matters and aspirations that affect the region and the world. The nearest parallel is the Soviet Union after 1917 or France following the 1789 revolution. History indicates that attacking such regimes only makes them stronger. This is what happened following Iraq's invasion of Iran 26 years ago this September.

Dealing with an ideology originating in Islam's earliest era that is held by a substantial number of Iranians requires a more subtle approach. But the West's influence has been weakened by Israel's Hezbollah war. Tehran can credibly present itself as one of the few Middle East regimes prepared to stand up for those Israel oppresses. Logically, one of the first steps in a new policy towards Iran is restraining Israel and encouraging it to begin overdue negotiations about a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement .

Most Iranians have a proud sense of national identity shaped by 3,000 years of history. Classifying Iran as President Bush did in his 2002 State of the Union address as a part of an axis of evil with Iraq and North Korea made headlines, but strengthened Iranian resolve. Anti-Iran rhetoric in the US before, during and after the war for Iraq contributed to Ahmadinejad's June 2005 election victory. It should stop.

Iranians, like everyone else, want to be able to get a job, find a home, raise children and live in peace. The tripling in world oil prices since the end of 2003 has enormously benefited the Iranian economy and its positive effects are filtering down to the average citizen. Affluence is the most powerful antidote to extremism. It should be allowed to work its magic in Iran.

Tehran wants a regional order that guarantees its security. That requires bilateral and collective agreements among its neighbours designed to increase confidence that they will not threaten each other. Iran and the region may not yet be ready. But sense suggests it is the right move. More should be done to convince the US and the West that it is in their interests too.

There is a dark side to Iran. Intolerance of

dissent, human rights abuses and support for

dangerous Islamic militants taint the

republic's international reputation and are bad in their own right. But Iran's population,

natural resources and growing wealth will shape the Middle East's future. It is in everyone's interests that its influence should be constructive, not destructive.

Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and six others were charged in Baghdad on 21 August with genocide, crimes against humanity and war cri

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