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Iran's Defiance Narrows U.S. Options for Response

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2006

As Iran takes a step closer to developing nuclear capacity, President Bush finds his options ever more constricted. The Iranians seem unfazed by U.N. statements. The Russians and Chinese won't go along with economic sanctions. And the generals at the Pentagon hate the idea of a military strike.

The White House declared yesterday that "it is time for action" by the U.N. Security Council, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on it to take "strong steps" to force Tehran to abandon uranium enrichment. But even as Europeans, Russians and Chinese expressed disapproval of Iran's latest move, there were no signs of consensus on what to do about it.

The central problem for Bush, according to aides and analysts, is that Iran has proved impervious so far to the diplomatic levers Washington and its partners have been willing to use. Some administration officials have grown increasingly skeptical that a solution can be found, raising the prospect that, like North Korea before it, a second member of the trio of rogue states Bush once dubbed the "axis of evil" may ultimately develop a nuclear bomb over U.S. objections.

Bush is especially frustrated with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has abandoned negotiations with the Europeans and defied international pressure while talking of wiping Israel "off the map." Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, complained during an appearance yesterday in Houston that it is hard to find a diplomatic resolution because Ahmadinejad "is not a rational human being."

That has left Bush with few attractive alternatives. "At this point, your options seem to be not good and scarce," said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Your other option is living with it . . . and I think that's what will happen."

"Their Plan A is to put incremental pressure on Iran so it will cave," said retired Air Force Col. P.J. Crowley, a National Security Council aide under President Bill Clinton who now works at the liberal Center for American Progress. "And there is no Plan B."

Iran escalated the standoff by announcing that it has enriched uranium in a 164-centrifuge network to 3.5 percent. If true, the achievement would be a milestone but not one that necessarily makes a bomb imminent. Iran has insisted it wants nuclear energy for civilian purposes. Weapons-grade uranium would have to be enriched to at least 80 percent and would need thousands of centrifuges operating in tandem.

Iran reiterated yesterday that it plans to construct 3,000 centrifuges at its facility in Natanz within a year and declared it would eventually expand to 54,000. Making so many centrifuges work together is especially tricky, according to scientists. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Stephen G. Rademaker told reporters in Moscow yesterday that, once built, a 3,000-centrifuge cascade could produce enough highly enriched uranium to build a bomb within 271 days. A 50,000-centrifuge cascade, he said, would need 16 days to yield enough fissile material.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, headed to Tehran, and his inspectors are expected to report on whether the Iranian claims are true. But the announcement electrified the diplomatic circuit and highlighted the challenge to Bush. British, French and German officials all criticized Iran for "going in precisely the wrong direction," as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it. Russia and China also called the development unwelcome but still resisted a tough U.N. response.

Andrei Denisov, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, counseled restraint and said "it is not high time" to reach a judgment about Iran's ultimate nuclear aims. In an interview, Denisov said Moscow is concerned about reports that the Bush administration is studying military options and remains skeptical of sanctions. "We don't like sanctions, we don't like imposing any forceful settlement. It must be political and diplomatic."

The Security Council in a presidential statement last month gave Iran 30 days to suspend uranium enrichment, a deadline that expires April 28, but it threatened no consequences if Tehran disobeys. Rice said yesterday that the latest announcement means the council must do more to enforce its will.

"I do think that the Security Council will need to take into consideration this move by Iran and that it will be time when it reconvenes on this case for strong steps to make certain we maintain the credibility of the international community," she said. White House press secretary Scott McClellan would not discuss those steps, "but you can be assured that it needs to be more than just a presidential statement at this point."

U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton suggested that the council consider a resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter making its demand legally binding. "It's clear that by announcing not only the enrichment activity, but by contending they're prepared to go all the way to . . . 50,000 centrifuges, the Iranians are expressing their disdain for the Security Council," he said.

Diplomats from the United States, Europe, Russia and China agreed yesterday to meet about Iran next Tuesday on the sidelines of a scheduled Moscow meeting of nations in the Group of Eight. In the meantime, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged all sides "to cool down on the rhetoric and not to escalate."

Analysts said Iranian officials may have made the announcement to respond to the reports on U.S. military options, in effect saying airstrikes would not stop their program because they now possess enough knowledge to reincorporate it.

Bush has dismissed suggestions of airstrikes as "wild speculation" and emphasized diplomacy. If he cannot persuade Russia and China to toughen U.N. pressure on Iran, though, he has few options, analysts said. He could organize economic sanctions with a "coalition of the willing" in tandem with the Europeans. Or he could offer Iran a more substantive deal.

Richard N. Haass, a former top Bush State Department official, proposed a package in which Iran would be allowed "very limited enrichment" subject to inspection and in exchange be given economic benefits and security guarantees. If Iran violated the terms, he said on the Web site of the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is president, the deal would spell out consequences including sanctions and "conceivably military force."

"We've been trying coercive diplomacy and the Iranians have just sent a very clear message: 'Nice try, it just won't work,' " said Clifford Kupchan, an analyst at the Eurasia Group. "The only diplomatic option we haven't tried" is to cut a deal directly. "We might as well try putting everything on the table."

Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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