U.S. has limited options dealing with Iran threat

On the surface it might seem strange that President Bush has responded in such a low-key fashion to news that the Iranian government rejected a proposal from Britain, France and Germany and decided to resume work at its uranium processing plant in Isfahan.

Few people outside Iran believe that country, sitting on huge oil reserves, really needs atomic power for its domestic needs and would never use atomic know-how and facilities to make a bomb — although U.S. intelligence sources do suggest that the capacity for a bomb is a decade away. And it’s an open secret that some elements in the administration are not averse to the idea of a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

Yet President Bush said the United States was unlikely to bar Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from an upcoming U.N. meeting, despite earlier hints. And he thinks further negotiation with Iran might yet prove fruitful.

Has President Bush gone soft? Or does this stance represent a welcome recognition of unpleasant and complex realities?

We hope it’s the latter.

The first requisite in trying to disentangle the numerous dilemmas posed by Iran’s enthusiasm for nuclear technology is to give up the American habit of viewing antagonistic regimes as being in the grip of incomprehensible fanaticism and madness.

The Iranian theocracy is undergirded by an extreme interpretation of Islam and is thoroughly nasty to internal critics; if we lived there we would be plotting resistance, revolution or escape. But it’s possible to detect a cold-blooded, calculating realism in Iran’s relations with the outside world. If you want to succeed in international relations it is better to study those who wish you ill, to understand what might motivate them, than to dismiss them as irrational madmen.

Behind much of what Iran has done is the message many Americans would prefer to deny other regimes took from the invasion of Iraq: If you’ve been named as part of the “Axis of Evil” and want to avoid an American invasion, it couldn’t hurt to have a solidly credible threat of possessing nuclear weapons. It seems to have worked for North Korea (although there are other reasons, including the probable death of many thousands of South Koreans from ordinary artillery, that it would be unwise for the United States to invade).

Assuming some rationality by Iran’s mullahs suggests that the regime has maneuvered cleverly to take advantage of events connected to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. When the United States appeared to have succeeded quickly in the initial military phase, Iran opened negotiations with Europe and suspended its nuclear enrichment program. When the U.S. got bogged down dealing with the ensuing insurgency — and the Iranians established stronger ties and a fair amount of influence with Iraq’s Shiites — the regime picked a hard-liner as president and assumed a tougher stance.

With so many troops tied down in Iraq, the United States has limited options when it comes to military action against Iran. Having established trade ties with China and Russia, Iran might be able to avoid economic sanctions from the U.N. Security Council.

The United States has limited options in dealing with Iran — perhaps an offer of diplomatic recognition with a promise of no invasion might get Iran’s leaders to abandon their nuclear program, but perhaps not — so caution is the appropriate response.