Nowhere is the difference between a Security First foreign policy and one that assumes that "democratization must lead" more evident than in dealing with Iran. The Bush Administration continues to push for forced regime change, allocating funds to dissenting groups, seeking allies among ethnic minorities in Iran and calling on the Iranian people to rise up against their government. Moreover, the White House regularly refers to a "military option" in dealing with Iran. No wonder the mullahs feel threatened.
At issue is not merely their power and privileges but also everything they believe in. Regime change would mean allowing their people to conduct themselves in ways the mullahs find deeply offensive. It would be as if our fundamentalists were asked to not only turn the White House keys over to Al Gore, but also to welcome gay marriages and abortion clinics. In short, regime change is not a promising conversation-starter for diplomats or anyone else dealing with Iran.
What Iran has been seeking, and seems to still be looking for, is something that Americans should be able to relate to: security. They want protection from forced, imported regime changes (with which they have some prior experience given that the CIA overthrew their elected government in 1953), bombing and occupation. Iranians are all too aware that they are next on Bush's list of evil nations; they can hear clearly the war drums regularly emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Iran has explicitly and repeatedly asked for a non-aggression treaty with the United States, assurances that their borders will not be challenged and removal of some of the military bases with which the U.S. has surrounded them since 9/11. In return, they say they are willing to put everything on the table. So far, though, the United States has refused to consider this course.
We should. If Iran is willing to give up its support of terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere, and to fold its military nuclear weapons programs, we should agree to respect its borders and let its people bring about whatever regime they favor, in their own way at their own pace. That is the way we dealt with Libya and the way we are now finally dealing with North Korea.
This mutual security enhancement deal-you stop undermining our security and that of others, and we will let you be-should have an implicit deadline. There is a danger that the Iranians will drag things out by endless give and take (i.e., take off the table on Monday what they put there on Sunday) until their nuclear bombs are ready. For that reason, we need to put a time limit on the diplomatic approach. This should not be an explicit one though, because such a deadline would amount to an ultimatum to which most nations find too humiliating to yield. Nevertheless, the deadline should be clearly understood. Say the United States could let it be known the resulting treaty must be brought before Congress for approval sometime in March 2008, to allow Congress to process it, before it retires.
At the same time, the military option cannot be taken off the table, because it is a major factor keeping the Iranians there. Nor is it correct to hold that such an option is not a realistic one. True, bombing the nuclear sites may not work, given that they are dispersed, very well sheltered in caves and under mountains of cement, and that some are located in highly populated areas. And, given our overstretched armed forces, occupying a sizable country like Iran is not possible. However, bombing non-nuclear military installations, command and control centers, and the ports and airports from which weapons are shipped to terrorists is quite doable, and could be continued until the Iranians commit themselves to ending their nuclear arms program. That is, until they are willing to disable the relevant nuclear plants, just as North Korea is now said to be doing.
Those who hold that such an action by the United States would lead to "worldwide" retaliations by Hizballah imply that a small bunch of terrorists can neutralize the world's superpower. Acting against these terrorists is urgently called for, before they are emboldened by a nuclear-armed mothership. It is also important to make clear that this time, the U.S. will exhaust all other means of settling the matter before the military option comes into play.
None of this makes sense if one believes that the road to security leads through a democratic Tehran, to be brought about in the foreseeable future through a combination of CIA agents, Voice of America, cooperation with local reformers and the "people of Iran." It makes a lot of sense, though, if you believe that such a regime change is a pipe dream. Stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons and impeding support for terrorism should be the highest U.S. priority, for our security and for that of other nations-even our adversaries.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor of International Relations at the George Washington University and the author of Security First: For A Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, 2007).