A bad day for the Iranian nuclear crisis

February 14, 2013

Herman Nackaerts, of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaks to reporters on returning from Iran. (DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)

The Western-led effort to slow or halt Iran's nuclear development suffered two significant setbacks Thursday. Taken together with other events from the past two weeks, it's hard to see much cause for optimism at the moment.

First, the Washington Post's Joby Warrick reported that Iran attempted to buy 100,000 ring-shaped magnets, which U.N. sanctions prohibit the country from acquiring because they are specialized for use with centrifuges that enrich uranium. The Iranian purchase attempt was "a sign that the country may be planning a major expansion of its nuclear program that could shorten the path to an atomic weapons capability."

Second, United Nations nuclear inspectors left Tehran empty-handed, having failed to secure access to suspected nuclear sites, a date for further negotiations or, as Reuters put it, "even a small signal of hope for wider big power diplomacy aimed at averting a war."

These are big setbacks for the Western-led effort to find a peaceful, diplomatic solution – and they are made even more ominous by the timing. Representatives from Iran and world powers (known as the "P5+1" coalition) are set to meet for negotiations in Kazakhstan on Feb. 26 – less than two weeks from now.

The Obama administration has signaled that it still seeks a negotiated solution to the crisis. Just two days ago, President Obama insisted in his state of the union speech, "the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution." He added, in a clear reference to his long-standing threat to use military force as a last resort, "we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."

Vice President Biden also recently raised the possibility of direct negotiations with Iran. Just days later, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a speech in which he appeared to slam the door on talks. "Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America, however, negotiations will not solve the problem," he said.

International economic sanctions, including from the United Nations, have devastated the Iranian economy but don't appear to have done much in bringing Tehran to the negotiating table. And they may not have done much to increase popular Iranian pressure to roll back the nuclear program. According to a recent Gallup survey, 47 percent of Iranians blame the United States for sanctions, but only 10 percent blame their own leaders. The poll also found that most Iranians still support a peaceful nuclear program.

Still, there is a real possibility that Iran's recent steps are meant only to give the country a better negotiating position. Iran, Warrick points out in his story, "is seeking to gain diplomatic leverage ahead of negotiations on proposed limits to its nuclear program." But it's also very much possible, as he notes Western states fear, that "Iran is planning a major expansion in its nuclear capacity that would allow it to make atomic weapons quickly if it chooses to do so."

In Western capitals, impatience with Iran certainly seems to have been building for more  than two years now. Today is not a good day in the effort to break through the stalemate and find a peaceful, negotiated solution. That doesn't mean it still can't happen, though, and the Obama administration's pursuit of a deal is likely to continue.

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Max Fisher | February 14, 2013