Paul Pillar

The Road Not Taken Toward Iran

Despite the enormous attention to Iran's nuclear program and the routine description of it as an enormous problem, measures intended to deal with this problem have an enormous gap. There has been no exploration jointly with the Iranians, and almost none unilaterally in U.S. policy discourse, of possible safeguards of an Iranian program that would include the enrichment of uranium. There are all manner of inspections, on-site monitoring, and other procedural arrangements that could be explored to determine if they might form the basis of an agreement that would meet the minimum needs of both sides. But the exploration has never occurred. All we have on the U.S. side are some mutterings by the secretary of state about how maybe, possibly, someday Iran could be entrusted with an enrichment program. The western stance of no enrichment, coupled with a political environment in the United States in which Iran is demonized and anything that could be interpreted as a favorable gesture toward the Islamic Republic is politically dangerous, has so far preempted any moves to fill the gap.

Last week the head of Iran's atomic energy agency offered in a speech to allow international inspectors “full supervision” of all of Iran's nuclear activities for five years if sanctions on Iran are lifted. The offer was vaguely worded, and issues of timing and sequencing regarding the sanctions part of the formula might be difficult to work out. But it would be a mistake to respond as Americans have too often responded, which is to assume the worst about the intentions on the other side and to act in a way that would make sense only if that assumption were true, even though we don't know it to be true. It would make far more sense to act with the realization that as far as we know the Iranian statement could be anything from a major breakthrough to a phony bit of rhetoric. The only way to find out is to explore the unexplored road and talk with the Iranians about it. If the favorable possibility turns out to be true, talking could be the first step toward a comprehensive safeguards agreement. If the unfavorable possibility turns out to be true, little or nothing is lost; in fact the Western case for pressuring Iran would be strengthened by demonstrating that the West is willing to go the extra mile.

The only way in which this approach would not make sense is if talk about peacefully resolving the impasse over the Iranian nuclear issue is preparation for later making a case for launching a war against Iran. Unfortunately, some in the United States (and in Israel) who comment a lot on this matter seem to be doing exactly that. And when those people come to say that war is necessary because peaceful means have been tried and failed, that statement—if the unexplored road stays unexplored—will be false.