You might have missed it but Sen. John Kerry dropped a diplomatic bombshell during the Sept. 30 presidential debate. Asked about his proposed policy toward Iran, the Democratic presidential contender extended an atomic olive branch to Iran's ayatollahs. "I think the United States should have offered the opportunity to provide the nuclear fuel, test them, see whether or not they were actually looking for it for peaceful purposes," he told PBS' Jim Lehrer.
The proposal provides a worrying insight into the likely policy a Kerry administration would pursue toward the Islamic Republic. The Massachusetts senator, who routinely blasts President George W. Bush for his lack of fresh foreign policy thinking, has embraced a failed engagement policy that could have devastating consequences for American security and U.S. interests in the Middle East.
In fact, Kerry's atomic overture is not a new idea at all. To the contrary, it carries distinct echoes of the Clinton administration's disastrous "grand bargain" with another rogue state: North Korea.
The North Korean example is instructive. Just two years ago, Pyongyang abruptly announced that it possessed an active, clandestine nuclear program. The news came as a shock to many in Washington, since the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was thought to have given up its nuclear development back in 1994. The deal worked out by American policymakers at that time, known as the Agreed Framework, had provided an annual allotment of half a million tons of heavy fuel oil from the United States in exchange for Pyongyang's nuclear freeze. To sweeten the pot, the Clinton White House also cobbled together an international consortium to provide North Korea with two light-water nuclear reactors.
From the start, however, this policy approach was doomed to failure. For one thing, it did nothing to dampen Pyongyang's future ability to build weapons of mass destruction. At best, American officials hoped to halt North Korean nuclear development. No attempt was made to roll back Pyongyang's nuclear progress.
For another, it enshrined the idea in Pyongyang that rogue behavior leads to economic and political dividends. In the years since, North Korean leaders have repeatedly used their proliferation and weapons of mass destruction activities to exact further concessions from the United States and the international community.
Finally, it failed to account for the true source of the North Korean WMD problem -- the regime in Pyongyang. On the contrary, officials in Washington wrongly assumed that North Korea's nuclear program was just a diplomatic bargaining chip, rather than a core element of the Stalinist regime's stability. As a result, the White House unwittingly created the conditions for North Korea to more freely pursue the bomb.
Kerry, it seems, is willing to do the same with the world's leading sponsor of terrorism. At its most benign, his plan to supply Iran with nuclear fuel would do nothing to roll back Tehran's nuclear advances. At its most dangerous, providing Iran with nuclear-usable material might actually speed up the atomic quest of Iran's ayatollahs, all while failing to address the real reason for their ambitions: the nature of the Iranian regime itself. As a practical matter, therefore, such a deal would at least implicitly endorse the unthinkable -- a nuclear Iran.
That this approach would undermine the substantial gains the United States has made in nonproliferation in the past three years is self-evident. So is the fact that Tehran's mullahs are not likely to embrace this kind of arrangement. Indeed, Iranian officials have already slammed the policy as "irrational," and have expressed their intention to forge ahead with independent atomic development. "We have the technology (to make nuclear fuel) and there is no need for us to beg from others," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters in Tehran in early October.
As a template for his plans for engagement with the Islamic Republic, however, Kerry's debate proposal should be highly instructive. And after next week, it might just become official U.S. policy.