On 31st May, Condoleezza Rice offered Iran a deal: suspend nuclear enrichment in exchange for a package of incentives, including de facto US recognition. But engagement alone will not solve the crisis. Between 2000 and 2005, EU trade with Iran almost tripled. But the Iranian authorities invested their additional income not into schools and hospitals, but rather into Iran's nuclear programme. Tehran has become conditioned to associating concessions with non-compliance. Indeed, further incentives may make a crisis more rather than less likely. President Bush is serious when he says: "the development of a nuclear weapon in Iran is intolerable."
Iranian reformers do not offer a way out. While the rhetoric of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shocked Western officials, Iran's nuclear programme is no recent phenomenon, but rather the product of the administrations of Ahmadinejad's predecessors, the reformist Muhammad Khatami and pragmatist Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Nor should diplomats assume that Tehran is motivated by security concerns. Iran's covert programme pre-dates US presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq. While Israel occupies a paramount position in regime rhetoric, no Iranian has ever died in a war with the Jewish state.
The idea that there exists a magic diplomatic formula to bring Iranian behaviour back in line is the product of the faulty assumption that motivation for the regime's programme is external. Seventy per cent of Iranians were born or came of age after the 1979 revolution. Polling and anecdotal evidence suggest that only 20 per cent of Iranians still believe in the wisdom of theocracy. Yet there is no question that the unelected supreme leader and those surrounding him believe their sovereignty rests with God, not the people. To them, public opinion and demography is irrelevant. While pundits may hope for gradual reform or a "saffron revolution," true believers will not compromise their ideology. A nuclear deterrent enables them to crush dissent at home without fear of outside interference. China model? Think ten Tiananmen Squares.
European officials point out the difficulty of military action. While air strikes would set back Iran's programme, they would not eliminate it. Iranians would certainly rally around their flag. The regime might lash out. It could destabilise Iraq or engage in terrorism. It could disrupt oil supplies. But, if it felt itself secure behind a nuclear deterrent, it could do the same. No matter how costly military strikes may be, however, they remain possible, as the White House calculates that the cost of allowing the Islamic Republic to possess nuclear weapons would be higher given the possibility that the regime might use them.
But debate need not be limited to advocating diplomacy or defending a military strike. Between the extremes is an arsenal of tools which could be applied if Iran continues to defy the international community. While comprehensive sanctions are unlikely given high oil prices, more targeted sanctions are possible: just as the international community once curtailed air service into Libya, it could do so into Iran. Freezing the bank accounts of Iran's corrupt leadership would be popular among ordinary Iranians and inflict pain only upon those who deserve it.
While the chattering classes dismissed Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric as unsophisticated, Iran's inclusion was not cowboy rhetoric, but rather a non-violent effort to apply economic pressure. It worked. Foreign investment in Iran dropped.
The EU should not let ongoing diplomacy stop investment in independent civil society. The West should not hesitate to support independent, unlicensed civil society groups and trade unions, even if Iranian authorities declare such groups illegal. The dangers from the Islamic republic come from its government's lack of accountability to its people, who are far more moderate. The west should invest in independent Iranian media, which could better explain western concerns over the Iranian regime's behavior. Western governments might be surprised by how receptive ordinary Iranians would be: while Iranian government-sponsored polls indicate 77 per cent of Iranians support Tehran's nuclear stance, support drops precipitously when independent pollsters ask whether Iranians would feel comfortable if their leaders possessed nuclear weapons.
The west should also support Iranian dissidents. Besieged Iranian journalists have become engines for change. It is incumbent upon European diplomats to recognise their courage. When imprisoned journalists receive medical furlough, Iranians line up to visit them. European diplomats ignore them. The silence of the British, French, and German embassies makes a mockery of European human rights rhetoric and gives carte blanche to the regime to continue its abuses. Dissidents have little to lose; they have already proved their mettle and put their lives on the line. If British officials demanded to see Ahmad Batebi, the young student imprisoned after the 1999 student protests for the crime of having his photograph put on the cover of the Economist, the effect would be enormous.
The Gdansk model should be emulated, especially as labor unrest grows in Iran. Independent unions would force the regime to be accountable to its people. Textile workers in Gilan, bus drivers in Tehran, and refinery workers in Abadan all deserve respect. Rather than invest its money in nuclear centrifuges, the Iranian leadership might pay the back wages of workers in government-owned factories.
The Iranian supreme leader is unelected and wields absolute power for life. The council of guardians disqualified more than 1,000 presidential candidates before the last elections for insufficient revolutionary fervor. If there is to be a lasting solution to the Iranian crisis, the west must address the question of how to make the Iranian regime accountable to its constituents.