Iran's Nuclear Plant Revelation Changes the Calculus on Stopping It

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

THE REVELATION that Iran has been illegally hiding another nuclear plant represented an intelligence coup for the United States and its allies, and it was delivered at an important moment -- just days before the first meeting in a year between Iran and the international coalition that has been pressing for a suspension of its nuclear program. The uranium enrichment facility, hidden in tunnels under a mountain near the city of Qom, looks like the sort of clandestine plant that U.S. intelligence agencies predicted Iran would use to produce a weapon; officials say that when it is operational, it could deliver the material for a bomb in a year. If that was its purpose, then its discovery has dealt Iran's program a setback.

The public announcement, which U.S. officials said they had been planning since July, also offers the Obama administration an opportunity to energize what has looked like a lagging campaign to focus international pressure on Tehran. Gathered for the Group of 20 summit, President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown took turns Friday underlining the seriousness of Iran's latest violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and warning of harsh consequences if the Islamic regime did not soon take steps to comply with the Security Council resolutions it has defied for years.

Whether the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be moved by the warnings is another matter. The two leaders give every indication of believing their own rhetoric, which declares that the United States and its allies are incapable of stopping the nuclear program or of mounting serious sanctions. Nor does Mr. Ahmadinejad show any intention of negotiating seriously with the group of five permanent Security Council members and Germany at the upcoming talks in Geneva. The coup that Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad launched against moderates within the regime this summer is aimed at perpetuating Iran's belligerent policies toward the West. It follows that outside powers will have little chance of stopping the nuclear program through peaceful means unless the two leaders lose power in the ongoing domestic conflict. Strong sanctions could help the Iranian opposition if average citizens blame the regime for shortages, rising prices or other economic disruptions. But Mr. Ahmadinejad probably reckons that he can use them to rally the country behind him.

That will be harder if the steps have the backing of Russia and China as well as the West -- which is why the Obama administration is focusing diplomacy on those governments. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hinted at support for sanctions this week, but it's not clear that Moscow's real ruler, Vladimir Putin, agrees. China continues to oppose sanctions in public while quietly striking deals to supply Iran with the gasoline that would be one of the best targets for an embargo.

The United States must make clear to those governments that it will not settle for inaction against a regime that is brazenly defying international treaties and U.N. Security Council resolutions. At the same time, the administration should reassess the intelligence community's conclusion about whether and how quickly Iran is seeking a weapon. If it had not been discovered, the Qom plant could have given Iran the means for a bomb by 2011 without the world knowing about it. And if there is one clandestine facility, most likely there are others.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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