Iran Slips Away

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

AMID THE financial crisis and the worsening violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran's nuclear program and Western efforts to stop it have slipped down Washington's list of priorities. That's just what Tehran's ruling mullahs were hoping for. The government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still stonewalling international inspectors trying to investigate evidence that Iran has secretly worked on nuclear bomb and missile warhead technology. This summer, it rebuffed the latest Western effort to open negotiations -- one whose only precondition was that Iran agree to a six-week pause in adding centrifuges to the 3,800 it has already installed in a uranium enrichment plant. At the same time, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has temporarily lowered its profile, supporting cease-fires by the militant groups it backs in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and pulling back the "special groups" that were organizing deadly attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.

The result, as Iran races toward accumulating enough uranium for a bomb, is that the sense of urgency about the threat it poses is lower here and in Europe than it was six months or a year ago. The board of the International Atomic Energy Agency gathered yesterday in Vienna to hear a stern report about Tehran's continuing refusal to answer key questions about the program. A six-member group of permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany will meet this week in an attempt to demonstrate that it can still work together in spite of the growing rift between Russia and the West. But there seems to be little prospect that the Security Council will agree anytime soon on a fourth round of U.N. sanctions -- much less the tough measures that might command Tehran's attention.

What might those measures be? The two most important would be an arms embargo -- which would prevent Russia from supplying Iran with the advanced air defense systems it has reportedly promised -- and a ban on the export to Iran of gasoline and other refined products, which could cripple Iranian transport. But Bush administration officials appear to have all but given up hope that the Security Council would approve such tough action. Instead, they hope mainly for the symbolism of another unanimous resolution that will reinforce Iran's diplomatic isolation and justify unilateral U.S. or European measures, such as a recent attempt to curtail insurance for Iranian shipping.

There's no indication that such steps will change Iranian behavior soon -- nor is a military strike by the United States or Israel likely in the coming months. That means the next major initiative to stop an Iranian bomb will probably be a new effort by the next U.S. president to launch negotiations; Barack Obama has made it a centerpiece of his policy, and John McCain has said he's willing to support talks as well. Both also say they will work to stiffen sanctions. That, of course, is the strategy the United States and European governments have already been pursuing for several years -- without success. Why do the candidates believe they will succeed where the Bush administration has failed? That would be a good topic for Friday's foreign policy debate.

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