Iran: A Test for the Great Powers
No. 1 2004 January/February

The Iranian issue has accumulated all of the immediate problems
of international policy: combating terrorism and the states that
are subsidizing it, WMD non-proliferation, the possible
democratization of the Greater Middle East and of Islam. It also
reflects a conflict within the global community – which approach
should it take for resolving international crises: the use-of-force
approach that is favored by a majority in the present U.S.
administration, or the evolutionary method supported by most
European countries and Russia. In fact, the situation around Iran
embodies the essence of global challenges: its further development
is likely to affect the future of this entire explosive region,
extending from the Mediterranean Sea and far beyond.


Most of the participants in this discussion agree that Iran is
likely to become a major challenge to the regional and global
security. This assumption rests on the following trends in Iran’s

  • orientation of the majority of the Iranian elite and the
    general public toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons;
  • reluctance to fully cooperate with the International Atomic
    Energy Agency (IAEA) and attempts to misinform the global community
    as regards Iran’s nuclear program;
  • support for some Middle East organizations that have been
    recognized by the international community as terrorist groups; an
    open anti-Israeli policy;
  • active support for Shiite groups in the neighboring countries
    with a view to attracting advocates of Shiite Islam;
  • preservation of fundamentalist trends in its domestic
  • desire to gain the leading position in the region, holding back
    the global players.

An additional alarming factor is the overall poor situation in
the region, where Iran is surrounded by failing or failed states.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that the entire region has
turned into a knot of contradictions and conflicting interests: the
Middle East conflict; the settlement of the Iraqi and Afghan
crises; Indo-Pakistani and Indo-Chinese clashes; the unsettled
status of the Caspian Sea; the Caucasian ‘black hole;’ problems of
Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism and drug trafficking. The arc of
instability across the Greater Middle East makes it the main
challenge to international security.

However, there are several positive tendencies at play in Iran
itself that may work in favor of its development. Among the
favorable factors is the rapid expansion of information
technologies, mobile communication and the Internet in the country.
The country’s demographic situation (Iranians aged 27 and under
account for 60 percent of the population) may prove beneficial for
the gradual transformation of the present regime. It is noteworthy
that the efforts of the conservative circles to reverse the
evolutionary processes in the country arouse large-scale public
protests. The newly established electoral system creates the
prerequisites for the appearance of new generations of Iranian

There is also an obvious change in the moods among the political
elite in favor of normal diplomatic and economic relations with the
West. For instance, Iran has been demonstrating its readiness to
open up its power engineering industry to Western companies,
including French, British and, possibly even American ones, as well
as Russian companies; this move may favorably affect both the
development of the Iranian economy and its relations with the
developed countries. As a result of international pressure, and in
response to some friendly recommendations, Iran has agreed to open
its nuclear program for a thorough inspection by the IAEA.

Finally, in some of the recent crisis situations, specifically
around Afghanistan and Iraq, Teheran has played a rather positive
role. The defeat of the Taliban and the overthrow of Hussein reduce
Teheran’s fears of external threats; it provides Iran with new
opportunities for concerted actions with Europe, Russia and even
the United States. Unfortunately, a decrease of tension with the
U.S. is hampered by continuous threats voiced by Washington: its
repeated pronouncement about the need to replace the regime in
Iran. This policy only irritates the Iranian public and
consolidates the conservative forces of Iran.

At the same time, the participants in the discussion noted that
any Iranian government, whether democratic or not, regardless of
its composition and ideological beliefs, would see the acquisition
of nuclear weapons as one of the key national priorities. This idea
enjoys the active support of the Iranian people. Furthermore, the
possession of nuclear weapons by some neighboring countries (India,
Pakistan, Russia and especially Israel), and the general crisis of
the WMD non-proliferation regime, are additional incentives for
Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb. Also, Iran, as well as many other
countries, has to respond to the tough offensive policy pursued by
the United States, and its direct threats of military


The participants in the conference gave much consideration to
the positions of the key players involved in the settlement of the
Iranian problem – the United States, the European Union, and
Russia. The conference concluded that the Iranian issue tests the
ability of the developed countries to agree on a common strategy
for overcoming the present crisis of global governance. A success
in these efforts would help build a new system of global
governance, whereas a failure would signal the international
community’s weakness in countering the threats posed by the arc of

The United States. In analyzing the U.S. position on the Iranian
issue, the speakers noted the failures in the policy pursued by the
Bush administration, which has been guided by the neoconservative
ideology and internal political considerations. By proclaiming
extreme goals and implementing a stick-and-no-carrot policy toward
Teheran, the United States has limited the opportunities for a
diplomatic solution. This policy provokes Iran to boost its nuclear
program and reinforce subversive activities in the adjacent,
already unstable states. Due to such an approach, the United States
is gradually losing its allies; even Great Britain, a close partner
of the United States, is now more inclined to share the position
held by continental Europe.

 All of the speakers agreed that any military conflict
between the United States and Iran is an unreasonable and
unacceptable option. This lingering confrontation may spark the
situation in the Greater Middle East and turn it into a hotbed of
large-scale military conflict. Such developments may put an end to
the coalition of the developed countries, formed to counter
terrorism and the new challenges to international security. In the
event of a U.S. military defeat, this would force it to abandon the
region, would undermine Washington’s global leadership, bring about
a power vacuum in the international system and eventually deal a
catastrophic blow to international stability.

Some speakers described the U.S. approach toward Iran as
counterproductive in essence. Rather than seeking to undermine the
political regime in Iran and treating it as an enemy, the United
States should have, at the very outset of the ‘war on terrorism,’
regarded it as a potential ally. Following the September 11th
events, the United States should have amended its policy toward
Iran which it has pursued for the last 20 years. The reasons for
doing so are as follows: 1) Iran remains the only ‘non-failed’
state in the Middle East; 2) Teheran has supported the
antiterrorist coalition in combating the Taliban movement and taken
active steps to uproot the al-Qaeda offshoots in its territory.
However, instead of taking advantage of Teheran’s stance following
the September 11th events for amending its policy (with face
saved), the United States ranked Iran among the “axis of evil”
states, and declared the overthrow of the Iranian regime as its
major goal.

The European Union. The participants in the discussion agreed
that, although Europe shares many claims of the United States
concerning Teheran, individual European countries have more in
common as regards their positions on Iran than they have with the
United States. Unlike the United States, Europe maintains that
there is no evidence that Iran supports terrorism; Europe has
stressed the need to broaden cooperation in combating terrorism,
while calling on Teheran to actively work along this line.
Moreover, the European countries and Iran effectively engage in

According to the views of several speakers, the outwardly
hostile policy of the United States toward Iran conceals its
dog-in-the-manger strategy. That is, a desire to restrain access of
its competitors to the Iranian market, especially since the United
States is presently denied such access. At the same time, many U.S.
politicians and businessmen favor the establishment of normal
relations with Iran.

Another fundamental difference in the position of the United
States and that of Europe concerns the assessment of the threat
coming from Iran. For Washington, the very fact that there is such
a strong player in the Greater Middle East as Iran is already a
threat – it makes the region uncontrollable; and Iran’s obtaining
nuclear weapons would be simply unacceptable to the U.S. The
Europeans see the possible emergence of nuclear weapons in Iran as
a danger rather than as a threat, since Iranian nuclear missiles
would pose no threat to the European territory. What presents more
of a threat for the Europeans is the instability that will arise
should the U.S. launch an attack on Iran.

The imperatives of the U.S. and European policies differ
respectively. For Europe, Iran is not a hostile state; coexistence
with it is possible once an adequate policy has been carried out.
For many Americans, the existence of Iran in its present form is
unacceptable, and the only way to solve the problem is by Iran’s

At the same time, the participants in the discussion noted that
Europe and the United States treat the use of military force
differently and have different conceptions of what constitutes an
optimal and successful policy. The Europeans seek to transfer the
compromise principle, which has become a practice within the EU, to
its relations abroad. Compromise, as an integral part of any
political solution, differentiates the European approach from the
American one. Consequently, Europe prefers to persuade the Iranian
leadership, through diplomacy and a policy of involvement,
alternating pressure with encouragement and offering conditional
dividends, to suspend its nuclear program and subversive activities
in the adjacent countries. If this policy fails, the Europeans will
focus on the most optimal and secure model of coexistence with a
new, nuclear-armed Iran. In either case, according to the EU, it is
critical to avoid any open confrontation.

The speakers asked the question if Europe is capable, in
principle, of initiating a course of its own, or whether its policy
is limited to attempts at transforming the U.S. agenda concerning
Iran. Some of the speakers suggested that Europe has no real
effective instruments for influencing Iran, besides providing it
with some economic and, to a lesser degree, political dividends.
That is why Europe cannot offer an Iranian program of its own: its
role consists in moderating the excessively rigid course of the
United States.

Meanwhile, some seemingly independent steps taken by the
Europeans, such as a joint visit by French, British and German
foreign secretaries to Iran which was crowned by Teheran’s
agreement to sign an additional protocol to the Non-Proliferation
Treaty, actually stem from U.S. policy. So there is a kind of
‘division of labor:’ whenever the United States is not prepared to
escalate the conflict with Iran (in this particular case it was
bogged down in Iraq, while entering a presidential election year),
Europe revitalizes its political cooperation with Iran. Otherwise,
as noted by some speakers, the United States is not interested in
an active contribution by the Europeans. Moreover, while making
advances to Europe, Teheran keeps a close watch on Washington’s

Russia’s position on Iran was described by the speakers as much
more inconsistent than those of the United States and Europe.
Russia is the only major player that considers itself to be ‘a
friend’ of Iran and actually advocates Iranian interests. The
importance for Russia to cooperate with Iran is motivated by two
factors – economic benefits and geopolitical considerations.

The economic benefits for Russia include getting funds necessary
to support its nuclear power engineering – one of the few high-tech
industries that have survived the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Furthermore, it is vital that Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry earn
money in order that it may implement programs for ensuring the
safety of nuclear weapons, as well as the secure storage of nuclear
material. U.S. assistance for Russia’s nuclear security programs is
also beneficial, but relatively insignificant, and there has been
no assistance coming from Europe. Nor has Europe responded to
Russia’s proposals concerning its ‘peaceful atom’ cooperation with

In terms of geopolitics, Moscow views Iran as a stronghold of
Russia’s influence in the Middle East. Its good relations with Iran
are an important factor in strengthening Russia’s positions in the
post-Soviet region of Central Asia. And Iran has proved to be a
responsible partner during the Chechen and Tajik conflicts.

At the same time, Moscow is very concerned about the possibility
of Iran possessing nuclear weapons: in such a scenario, it would be
Russia, not the United States, which may find itself within the
striking distance of Iranian missiles. Moreover, it is most likely
that once Iran gets hold of nuclear weapons, its state policy will
become more radical. Moscow has considered the possibility (not
quite justifiably though) that while it is assisting Iran
economically, and offering diplomatic support of Iran’s interests
in multilateral institutions, it could have a positive influence on
the Iranian leadership.

Although Russia’s foreign policy philosophy is closer to that of
the U.S., and Russia regards the use of military force as a norm in
international policy, in the long-term view its position toward
Iran may appear closer to that of Europe. In fact, Russia should be
more concerned than Europe about the catastrophic consequences of a
possible war between the U.S. and Iran.


Most experts agree that there are two possible scenarios:
Scenario A (which should be put into effect in case Iran remains a
non-nuclear state) and Scenario B (a response to Iran’s acquisition
of nuclear weapons and, consequently, to the change in its

Scenario A.  In providing “carrots” and “sticks,” the
primary focus should be given to the “carrots.” The West should be
more attentive to Iran’s concerns for its security and refrain from
exerting pressure and making ultimatums. Excessive pressure may
lead to Iran becoming an active, rather than passive, proliferant
of nuclear technologies, as well as a source of nuclear material
and arms for terrorist groups worldwide. With this possibility in
view, the participants did not support the idea of forming a
“Northern Alliance” which would force Iran, through the application
of strong pressure, to abandon its nuclear program.

According to the experts, the situation can be stabilized by
establishing a viable system of regional security in the Middle
East. However, in spite of the obvious advantages, this proposal is
difficult to implement because of the lack of responsible players
in the region. Still another reason derives from the weakness of
the mechanisms of influence on the situation from the major world
powers. Another idea voiced at the conference was that the United
States should grant Iran formal guarantees of security, which could
undermine its incentives to obtain nuclear weapons.

In the course of the discussion, an opinion was ventured that
the United States’ policy toward Iran should follow the policy
launched by President Nixon in 1972 toward China.

Some unconventional proposals were also made. One of these ideas
involved Israel in settling the Iranian problem. Other participants
did not find this idea realistic, given the history of stormy
relations between Iran and Israel, as well as the anti-Israeli
tendencies in Teheran’s policy. The Iranian leadership may regard
such a step as a naked provocation, which would ultimately bring
the negotiations to a deadlock. A different option looked more
effective – work toward settling the Iranian problem at the same
time as the U.S. exerts pressure on Israel.

Another alternative strategy is to recognize India and Pakistan
as nuclear states in order to formalize their actual acquisition of
nuclear weapons. This would make the overall situation less
ambiguous. The proposal stems from the assumption that the
recognition of these two nuclear states would help stabilize the
situation in the region and prevent the proliferation of weapons of
mass destruction. The WMD proliferation regime was addressed more
than once during the discussion. It is not accidental that many
speakers viewed the transformation of the regime as a key to
resolving the Iranian problem, although options varied greatly –
from transformation with due regard for the individual features of
each state, to the old idea of general and complete nuclear

One of the most popular ideas voiced during the discussion
(presumably because of the particular membership of the conference)
was that the European Union should play the leading role in
settling the Iranian problem. However, this idea is not in tune
with the broadly recognized fact that currently the EU has no
effective instruments of influence on Iran. Most speakers supported
the idea that the Iranian issue should be addressed through joint
efforts by the EU, the United States and Russia, which can play
different, yet coordinated roles, and exert not only complementary,
but also a synergetic influence on Iran.

Agreement was reached on the fundamental issue concerning the
change of the Iranian regime. According to the majority of the
speakers, transformation of the regime should be left to the
Iranians themselves, and democratization should not be imposed from
the outside. At the same time, the experts agreed that the
international community should remain committed to the policy of
tension reduction and increased mutual openness; this approach
proved to be effective when the West had to deal with the Soviet
Union and it may prove to be helpful in case of Iran as well. In
any case, it is expedient to expand the dialog with the Iranian

Almost everybody highlighted the need for a new regional
security system, with safeguards provided by the great powers. This
measure would diminish Iran’s concern about its security, thereby
reducing the incentives for obtaining nuclear weapons and
unleashing a regional arms race. In this respect, it is also urgent
to achieve a quick settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli

Scenario B. The experts did not support the idea of adopting a
more rigid policy toward Iran through the exertion of increased
pressure, even should it acquire nuclear weapons. There was common
consent that the resolution of the problem by military force, as
was the case in Iraq, “is by no means an option.” Some experts
believe that the two scenarios are, in fact, identical. If Iran
turns into a nuclear state (it is generally agreed that this could
happen in 2007, or at a later date), the international community
should not reverse its strategy and continue its adherence to
Scenario A.

There was a general note of skepticism in the discussion: most
likely, the international community will have to submit to Iran
becoming, in the long run, a nuclear state with the regime
remaining uncontrollable (marginal democracy) and the surrounding
countries being unstable. According to the experts, the maximum to
be sought by the world community is to take active efforts for
suspending Iran’s acquisition of nuclear status until the year
2012, or possibly even later. This would be possible if Teheran
further transforms its domestic policy and refuses to develop
nuclear weapons, at the same time that the global community
provides guarantees for Iran’s security. The resolution (at least
partial) of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would serve as an
additional external contributing factor for a positive outcome.

The Iranian problem can be resolved if addressed on a regional
scale; any policy targeted exclusively at Iran, even one that
combines pressure and encouragement, will fail. In order to reduce
the threat posed by a nuclear and undemocratic Iran, it is critical
that it become part of the regional security system and be bound by
agreements of cooperation and commitments in this realm. This
security system should consist of a number of complementary
subsystems, with each of them involving the countries of the region
and one or several influential international players – the United
States, Russia, and European countries. This could guarantee Iran’s
participation in all of the regional institutions and make it feel
the region’s leader.

Obviously, the conditio sine qua non is stabilization of the
participating states, such as Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Pakistan,
as well as the Trans-Caucasian and Central Asian countries. A
stable, democratic and, more importantly, controllable environment
would make the export of Islamic fundamentalism by Iran

Any preemptive attacks that are intended to destroy the Iranian
nuclear infrastructure can hardly be effective. Teheran has made
the necessary provisions for such an option. Many of its production
capacities will remain intact and survive to be twice as efficient.
At the same time, some experts believe that it is not expedient to
rule out a preemptive attack altogether. The potential threat of
such an attack may only serve to strengthen the positions of those
forces in Iran who believe that it would be imprudent to obtain
nuclear weapons as early as possible. Finally, should a preemptive
strike be ordered, it will only enhance Teheran’s political will to
acquire nuclear weapons, and, at the same time, delay the time of
their development.

Consistent comprehensive efforts should be made in order to
liberalize the Iranian regime, advocate the values shared by the
international community among the Iranian public and, in
particular, among young people. A guarantee of Iran’s security is
its integration into a regional security system that should involve
both the Iranian leadership and society as a whole. In addition, a
new concerted policy needs to be worked out as regards the phases
of development of the Iranian nuclear power engineering. This could
include the establishment of Russian-U.S.-European consortiums for
the construction of nuclear reactors in exchange for Iran’s
commitment to abandon its program for developing nuclear weapons. A
similar multilateral consortium may be helpful in cooperating with
Iran in the oil and gas industries.

To conclude, the Iranian problem again demonstrates that, first,
it is necessary that the United States, the EU and Russia work out
a single or at least an agreed strategy concerning the Greater
Middle East; second, no leading world power can meet the challenges
sent by the states of the Greater Middle East on its own. In fact,
the region in question is a single integrated challenge, and we
should address it this way, taking account of the entire

The participants in the discussion included: Jacque
, Advisor to EADC CEOs; Carl
, member of the Board of Trustees of the RAND
Corporation (U.S.A.); Charles Grant, Director,
Center for European Reform (London); Fyodor
, Editor-in-Chief, Russia in Global Affairs;
Ruslan Greenberg, Director, Institute of
International Economic and Political Studies, Russian Academy of
Sciences; Marta Dassu, Director of Political
Programs, Aspen Institute (Rome); Sergei
, Chairman of the Presidium, Council on Foreign
and Defense Policy; Andrew Kuchins, Director,
Moscow Carnegie Center; Michael Clarke, Professor
of Defence Studies, King’s College (London); Thierry de
, Director, IFRI (Paris); Alexander
, member of the Moscow Government;
Stefano Silvestri, President, Institute of Foreign
Affairs (Rome); Dmitry Trenin, Deputy Director for
Science, Moscow Carnegie Center; Andrei Fedorov,
Director for Political Programs, Council on Foreign and Defense
Policy; Nikolai Shmelev, Director, Institute of
Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences.