Iran's Failed 'Litmus Test'

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

LAST AUGUST, the International Atomic Energy Agency struck a deal with Iran on a "work plan" for clearing up outstanding questions about its nuclear program within three months -- in other words, before December 2007. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, who launched the initiative as an end run around the Western campaign to stop Tehran's ongoing uranium enrichment, claimed that it would be a "litmus test." "If Iran were to prove that it was using this period for delaying tactics and it was not really acting in good faith, then obviously nobody -- nobody -- will come to its support when people call for more sanctions or for punitive measures," Mr. ElBaradei said in an interview last September with Newsweek.

On Monday, some six months after the expiration of the deadline, the IAEA issued a report saying, in essence, that Iran had not acted in good faith and was engaging in delaying tactics. "Substantial explanations" were still lacking, the agency said, for documents showing that Iran had worked on bomb-related explosives and a missile warhead design. Moreover, while the IAEA has been cooling its heels, the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been installing two new and more advanced sets of centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, without providing required notification. International inspectors were denied access to sites where the centrifuge components were manufactured. "Iran has not provided the Agency with all the information, access to documents and access to individuals necessary," the IAEA report says.

So will Mr. ElBaradei now support tough new punitive measures by the U.N. Security Council? We expect not. Like several of the Security Council's members, the Egyptian-born director is far less concerned with preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb than in thwarting those he describes as the "crazies" in Washington. As long as that mentality prevails, it's unlikely that Iran will face sanctions stiff enough to cause it to reconsider its defiance of the multiple U.N. resolutions ordering it to suspend uranium enrichment.

That, in turn, is bad news not only for President Bush but for Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). The two presidential candidates have been arguing over whether and how the United States should negotiate with Iran; Mr. Obama suggests that talks would be a key element of his strategy. But as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently pointed out, negotiations won't work unless the United States and its allies develop "leverage, either through economic or diplomatic or military pressures, on the Iranian government so that they believe they must have talks with the United States because there is something they want from us."

At the moment, such leverage is manifestly lacking. How could it be brought about, despite the obstructionism of actors such as Mr. ElBaradei? That, more than the facile subject of whether to negotiate, would be a worthy point for the presidential candidates to address.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company