Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Tehran's Debate

U.S. must exploit splits among Iranians

As the U.N. Security Council wrestles with Iran's nuclear ambitions, a long-standing debate rages in Tehran that Western policymakers and analysts should not ignore.

Though Iranian officials publicly project a unified mind-set, in reality the country's ruling elites are divided into three broad categories: those who favor pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle at all costs; those who wish to pursue it without sacrificing diplomatic interests; and those who argue for a suspension of activities to build trust and allow for a full fuel cycle down the road.

Understanding and exploiting these differences should be a key component of any diplomatic approach.

The first group, supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, comprises confrontationists who romanticize the defiance of the revolution's early days. They argue Iran should withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty, unequivocally pursue its nuclear ambitions, and dare the international community to react.

The second group, like the confrontationists, argues that Iran is "bound by national duty" to pursue its "inalienable" right to enrich uranium, but unlike them, it favors working within an international framework. Lead nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani is representative, arguing simultaneously - perhaps inconsistently - that Iran must not succumb to "Western double standards," but also that "a country's survival depends on its political and diplomatic ties: You can't live in isolation."

The third, more conciliatory group is arguably most representative of popular sentiment, yet currently the least influential. They contend that Iran should freeze its enrichment activities to build confidence and assuage international concerns. This group has consistently backed direct talks with the United States, convinced that the Europeans are incapable of providing the political, economic, and security dividends Iran seeks.

At the moment, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appears more influenced by confrontationist voices around him who argue - with some plausibility - that nothing short of regime change will satisfy the United States and that retreating on the nuclear question would only display weakness and invite further pressure. Believing a clash with the United States inevitable, Tehran's hard-liners want it to occur on their terms, when oil prices are high and the Americans are bogged down in Iraq.

For the West to effectively counter Teheran's confrontationists, it must simultaneously strengthen its pragmatists. While the West should make clear that a bellicose Iranian policy will not reap rewards, it also should indicate that a more conciliatory stance would trigger reciprocal steps. Timing is key: Offering incentives prematurely, without modified Iranian behavior, may well validate the confrontationists' approach; refusing to offer genuine incentives will undermine the pragmatists' appeal.

After months of silence, Iranian moderates are beginning to make their voices heard. Former president Mohammed Khatami has criticized his successor's disregard for diplomacy, and recently the country's largest reform party urged the government to voluntarily suspend all nuclear fuel cycle work. This suggests pressure is having some effect, but it will go only so far.

If and when greater momentum and a larger consensus builds in Tehran for a nuclear compromise, it will be time for the West to clarify that a moderate Iranian approach would beget a moderated Western response.

A broader diplomatic accommodation - Iran forsaking domestic uranium enrichment and modifying its domestic and regional behavior in exchange for improved bilateral relations, security assurances, and a gradual lifting of sanctions - is the preferred option.

A smaller bargain would be acknowledging Iran's eventual right to operate a uranium-enrichment facility, but insisting on a total freeze now, a period thereafter of laboratory-scale activity only, and an intrusive inspections regime throughout, making clear that no move to weapons would ever be tolerated.

In both instances the logic is similar: To strengthen the hand of Iranians who are pressing for a less aggressive foreign and nuclear policy, they need to have a realistic and appealing alternative to point to.

With oil prices soaring and Iraq in chaos, continuing to insist on zero enrichment for zero incentives, which not even moderate forces in Iran can accept, holds little promise. The United States must come to terms with a reality that European, Russian, and Iranian officials privately admit:

If a nuclear Iran is to be avoided, the answer lies not in a European economic overtures or a Russian-led technical solution, but American-led diplomacy, starting from the premise that Iran's leadership is neither monolithic nor impossibly intransigent.

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