The world is increasingly frustrated over the Iranian nuclear programme. The question is: Who is going to blink first?
When Barack Obama was on the campaign trail, Republicans – and even some Democratic opponents – criticised him for saying he would meet with leaders of states like Iran. And, in his inaugural address, he spoke of America’s outstretched hand, reaching out to the clenched fist of opponents.
Despite rhetorical provocations by Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Obama’s strategy towards Iran appeared to be coming together like one of Hannibal Jones’ schemes in that old TV show, The A Team. At the UN, after three years of no talks between Washington and Tehran, there was now agreement on the start of direct discussions between the US and Iran. (Despite Iranian missile tests and disclosures about a secret nuclear plant, the talks remain scheduled for later on this week.) The Economist has dubbed Obama’s strategy “the quantity theory of foreign policy” – a process where one modest success builds upon another, creating a growing momentum for progress.
As part of this, the US decided to cancel a missile defence system based in Poland and the Czech Republic (planned by the Bush administration) and replace it with a more modest shipboard system, an announcement that evoked a public and positive Russian response. In part this was because the Russians had always been suspicious the system was not solely to protect Europe against potential Iranian missiles. Rather, they have worried that the system could destabilise the tactical balance on the eastern edge of NATO – and perhaps even confer a strategic theatre advantage to the Americans. Following the American decision, Russian leaders indicated they were increasingly inclined towards considering sanctions against Iran, should it be clear Iran was developing nuclear weapons, even if they would not admit this was connected to Obama’s decision on the missile defence system.
Over the past several days, however, things have changed. While they are not yet spinning out of control, the situation is starting to resemble a scene-setting chapter in a Tom Clancy potboiler. Late last week, Obama, Gordan Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy jointly announced the Iranians had been caught offsides, constructing a secret nuclear materials processing plant, near the city of Qom — on a Revolutionary Guards military base, no less. This site is apparently capable of housing 3,000 centrifuges, and centrifuges are critical for concentrating the radioactive uranium isotope needed for nuclear weapons construction – as well as power plant fuel.
Then Iran carried out a series of missile tests, missiles with sufficient range to reach Israel, parts of Europe and American bases in the Persian Gulf. In combination with the newly uncovered nuclear processing plant under construction, the resulting mix has had an unsettling impact on America, the major European nations – and Israel.
As a result, at this point, American officials think they have support for serious sanctions, if Tehran continues to build the plant near Qom. ?The Obama administration is now trying to craft a package of sanctions that could include a cut-off of investments to the country’s oil-and-gas industry and tighter restrictions on more Iranian banks than those now blacklisted. In fact, the Obama’s administration is seeking a broader coalition of partners that could still act even if China and Russia decided to veto harsher measures proposed in the UNSC.
And so, when President Obama stood last week with the leaders of Britain and France to denounce Iran’s construction of a secret nuclear plant, the Western powers all appeared to be on exactly the same page. But, behind this show of unity about Iran’s clandestine efforts to manufacture nuclear fuel, there remains a continuing debate among American, European and Israeli intelligence agencies about yet another component of Iran’s potential nuclear program: its apparent clandestine efforts to design a nuclear warhead.
The Israelis, who have already delivered veiled threats of a possible military strike, say they believe Iran has now restarted these “weaponisation” efforts, efforts that would be the final step in achieving a nuclear weapon – just before actually bolting it together. Moreover, the Germans say they believe the weapons work was never halted and the French have strongly suggested that independent international inspectors at the IAEA have more information about the weapons work than they have made public.
Putting the best face on all this, SecDef Gates said on American TV, “I think there is still room left for diplomacy” but “The Iranians are in a very bad spot now because of this deception, in terms of all the great powers.”
The Obama administration said that the US and its five partners – France, Russia, the UK, Germany and China – plan to tell the Iranians in Geneva on Thursday that it must provide “unfettered access” to its previously secret Qom enrichment facility within weeks. The six countries will demand full access for the International Atomic Energy Agency to any and every site, notebooks, computers and documents related to nuclear development, and all scientists.
The Iranians have now announced the site would be open for inspection – but, significantly, offered no timetable and said it was not prepared to renounce its nuclear program or debate its “rights” to operate the previously undeclared plant. Iran restated its assurance that the new plant will “produce enriched uranium only of up to 5%, a level consistent with its nuclear energy program” and that it built this uranium enrichment facility inside a mountain and next to a military site to ensure continuity of its nuclear activities in case of an attack.
Moreover, Iranian leaders have responded to the western pressure with some of their own sabre rattling. “We are going to respond to any military action in a crushing manner, and it doesn’t make any difference which country or regime has launched the aggression,” said Gen. Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guard Air Force.
Meanwhile, the Israelis are watching these developments very closely. Israel has long warned that a military strike might be the only effective response to Iran’s ambitions, but it seems satisfied – at least for the moment — to let President Obama’s strategy of offering to talk, while threatening to impose painful measures if those talks go nowhere, play itself out. Israeli intelligence officials believe Iran restarted weapons design work in 2005, although the Americans counter that the Israeli case is circumstantial. The western nations and Israel all base their respective views on a combination of satellite imagery, human spies and electronic eavesdropping and they do not necessarily share it all with one another or with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
As a result, besides disagreements amongst the various western nations and Israel, there is also bad blood with the IAEA. The departing chief of the IAEA, Mohamed El Baradei, recently argued that the case for urgent action against Iran was “hyped,” although he acknowledged Iran has refused to answer his inspectors’ questions, suggesting Iran was in fact working on weapons design.
Nonetheless, if Obama can convince Israel that the exposure of the Qum plant has dealt a significant enough setback to the Iranian effort, he may buy some time from the Israelis before they conclude they have to consider other options.
Those Iranian missiles have Israeli attention, as well as the new nuclear concentration plant. As Uzi Rubin, an Israeli expert on Middle East missile programs explains, “Missiles are for [Iranians] what both tactical and strategic air power are for the West.” He adds the Iranians “want to deter any U.S. or Israeli attack [and] Iranian leaders openly wish for U.S. satellites to take pictures of their weapons sites and to see their capability.”
Haviv Rettig Gur, columnist for the Jerusalem Post, comments, “Israeli officials believe the revelation of a hitherto-hidden uranium enrichment facility near the Iranian holy city of Qom will spur the international community to act more forcefully to stop the Islamic republic from developing nuclear weapons.” He quotes a senior Israeli official that “The free world has reached the last opportunity for engagement with Iran. We believe many Western countries now see that the Iranian mask is slipping.” And foreign minister Lieberman adds, “This ends the dispute over whether Iran is developing military nuclear power or not, and therefore world powers need to draw conclusions.”
The Obama administration faces an uphill battle to keep this particular problem under control, because of the nature of the countries it must persuade, their respective assessments about Iranian actions and intentions, — and because of changes inside Iran, particularly its disputed election and the ensuing protests. “Sanctions out of the blue for punishment purposes, as much as I think they deserve it, probably don’t serve any useful purpose in resolving the issue,” said Thomas R. Pickering, a former under secretary of state who has held informal negotiations with the Iranians.
However, Harvard professor Graham Allison, the author of “Nuclear Terrorism” and a scholar who has focused on proliferation and studies of nuclear face offs such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, said he could not conceive of Iran’s building only one such site. “How likely is it that the Qum facility is all there is? Zero. A prudent manager of a serious program would certainly have a number of sites,” he says. Allison adds that the lesson Iran took away from Israel’s destruction of an Iraqi reactor more than 25 years ago is to spread facilities around the country.
While the hope, obviously, is that this tangle can be contained, some analysts may already be calculating what will happen if it isn’t: what if the Obama initiatives are less than successful; what if the Iranians continue to work on their nuclear facilities; what if they eventually produce enough weapons-grade material and a weapons design sufficient to test a nuclear device; — and what if the Israelis then believe they have no alternative but to deal with this as they did with Iraq’s nuclear facilities a quarter of a century ago.
By Brooks Spector