How much more time for Iranian intransigence?

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Friday, November 6, 2009

IT'S BEEN five weeks since the Obama administration announced that Iran had agreed to ship most of its enriched uranium out of the country in exchange for fuel rods for a research reactor -- a deal that promised to delay Tehran's nuclear program by a year or so. But there have been no shipments; instead, Iran rejected the technical terms proposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is trying to change the deal in a way that would remove the slight benefit it offered to the West. And it is continuing its refusal even to discuss the central demand of the U.N. Security Council, which is that it suspend uranium enrichment.

So far there has been no visible reaction to Tehran's stance from the Obama administration, other than statements insisting that Iran go through with the uranium swap as originally agreed. The administration appears to be hoping that what officials believe is a debate inside the regime will be won by proponents of a rapprochement with the West. They also want to ensure that, if there is a breakdown in the negotiations, Iran is blamed by all concerned -- including Russia and China, whose support would be needed for new U.N. sanctions.

These calculations are sensible enough. Yet, as a practical matter, they facilitate what many experts believe is Iran's underlying strategy. That is to prolong talks with the United States and its allies for as long as possible, forestalling further sanctions even as the Revolutionary Guard continues its crackdown on the opposition "green movement." As opposition activists have been warning, the appearance of conducting talks with the United States helps the regime consolidate its shaky authority. And each day Iran's known centrifuges produce another six pounds of enriched uranium.

The Obama administration and European governments have set the end of the year as a deadline for the transfer of the uranium out of Iran and for progress in the overall negotiations. But the administration must consider whether it makes sense to grant the regime two more months of grace. On Tuesday, after all, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly rejected the overtures he said he had received from President Obama, declaring that negotiating with the United States was "naive and perverted." On Wednesday, the opposition protesters chanted: "Obama, Obama -- either you're with them, or with us." Sooner rather than later, Mr. Obama ought to respond to those messages.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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