Iran's Nuclear Progress

Thursday, April 13, 2006

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD continues to help the Bush administration's effort to convince the U.N. Security Council that more concerted action is needed to stop Iran's nuclear program. His loud announcement yesterday that Iran had succeeded in enriching uranium confirmed recent warnings by U.S. officials -- dismissed by some as exaggerated -- that Tehran's nuclear program was fast advancing. His defiant and exaggerated claim that "Iran has joined the club of nuclear nations" ought to make clear to Russia, China and other Security Council members how seriously the Iranian regime is taking their demand that it freeze its enrichment work. That is: not seriously at all.

Though the technological breakthrough Mr. Ahmadinejad touted -- the successful operation of a cascade of centrifuges to enrich uranium to the degree needed for nuclear fuel -- leaves Iran well short of the means to build a nuclear bomb, it is significant. It ought to prompt some rethinking about how long it might be before the Iranian regime can back up, with a nuclear weapon, its president's threat to wipe Israel from the map. Some in Washington cite a U.S. intelligence estimate that an Iranian bomb is 10 years away. In fact the low end of that same estimate is five years, and some independent experts say three. Iran has announced plans to install 3,000 centrifuges at its plant in Natanz by the end of 2006; according to former nuclear weapons inspector David Albright, that many working centrifuges could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in less than a year.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's provocative grandstanding also offers an answer to those who argue that his government would abandon its breakneck dash for an enrichment capability if only it were offered the right incentives -- such as security guarantees and "a political dialogue" with the United States. Not only has Tehran shown no interest in previous carrots dangled by Europe and Russia, but its president clearly relishes a confrontation with the West. His answer to those Iranian moderates who worry that the country might be isolated, or economically harmed, is to point to the Security Council's record thus far, which suggests there is no danger of such action.

Last weekend brought several news reports about the Pentagon's contingency planning for military action against Iran. As The Post reported, no attack is likely in the short term, and many specialists in and outside the government doubt such action would be effective. But unless the diplomacy on Iran can be made to work, this administration or its successor may have to choose between war and accepting Iran as a nuclear power. A workable diplomacy will have to include sticks as well as carrots: It will have to show Iranians that defiance of the Security Council, and provocations such as those of Mr. Ahmadinejad, will have tangible consequences.

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