How to Rein in Iran Without War
Iran is working to produce a 20-to-50-pound stockpile of enriched uranium that it can use to build atomic weapons within eight to 10 weeks, once it decides to do so -- and has consistently lied to the United Nations about those efforts.
That headline conclusion is one of two basic points that I draw from a series of private meetings on Iran's nuclear ambitions involving diplomats, leading academic experts, senior military officers and experienced analysts from around the globe. The other: The impressive unity that the Bush administration has established in imposing sanctions on Iran is fraying because of war fears and commercial pressures and temptations.
Held over the course of this year in Europe, China and Russia, these unofficial traveling seminars provide a snapshot of international reaction to the unmistakable effort by Iran to develop nuclear weapons and to the threats by President Bush and Vice President Cheney to prevent that from happening.
The conversations, organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), have dealt in mind-numbing detail with Iran's uranium-enrichment program, diplomatic and military options open to the West, and more. In Moscow two weeks ago, I was treated to several hours of explication on precisely how a subclause in a recent Russia-Kazakhstan nuclear power treaty prevents Russia from demanding that Iran forsake enriching uranium on its own territory.
I feel like one of those poor geese on a foie gras farm in Alsace. Perversely, though, this information-stuffing has underlined for me the need to focus on the basic pieces of the complex Iranian mosaic. This is the time not to rush past the obvious -- not to get lost in self-interested political rhetoric, heavy-breathing sensationalist "reporting" about looming invasions or diplomatic flimflams such as the implausible Russian-Kazakh ploy offered in Moscow. It is a month to keep your hand on your wallet, your eye on the cards.
Bush holds talks on Iran with French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- another war-is-an-option fellow -- in Washington and then with German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- a firm waverer on military strikes -- in Crawford, Tex., this week. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin follows up on his mid-October visit to Iran, where he reportedly told the Iranians that he needed some concession from them, and fast, to enable him to keep protecting them from new U.N. condemnation.
And by mid-November, Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, will report on whether the Iranians will now admit that they received and then developed P-2 centrifuges and got other nuclear technology from Pakistan, as was reported in this column in 1995 and as the IAEA has charged since 2002.
This is one basic that Bush critics frequently overlook -- in part because it gets lost in the overheated "World War III" rhetoric of the president: The IAEA and the U.N. Security Council have determined that Iran has lied about its nuclear activities and has therefore at least temporarily forfeited its right to enrichment for peaceful purposes. That Iran has gone to great, secretive lengths to create and push forward a bomb-building capability is not a Bush delusion.
But neither is it fantasy to say, as do Russia and China, that the Iranians have had great difficulty in getting their system of 2,952 centrifuges at Natanz, south of Tehran, to work effectively. The scenarios provided to Bush by U.S. and Israeli intelligence some years ago on what date Iran would get the bomb have not been validated. Bush does not face the pressure that he once anticipated for a binary, strike or no-strike, decision before he leaves office.
Paradoxically, time is running out on the diplomatic track, where Russia and China are blocking a third round of U.N. sanctions against Iran. This allows Cheney and other hawks to argue that waiting on diplomatic results is a waste of time. Blocking sanctions actually increases the pressure on Bush to move unilaterally and militarily.
China, blithely ignoring the potentially perverse effect of its actions, wants to maintain financial advantage and access to Iran's energy. Chinese participants emphasized that basic point to me at an IISS-sponsored gathering in Beijing in June. China would expect to be compensated if sanctions cost it business -- an attitude that would appall Germany's Merkel, Italy's leaders and other Europeans who have seen their trade with Iran plummet as a result of joining the U.S. financial campaign against Tehran.
The administration has too often pitched the confrontation with Iran as one that Bush alone will decide. Russia, China and Europe should do everything they can to prevent this from becoming necessary. Not backing the new U.N. sanctions brings it a scary step closer.