Buying Time for Iran
- Updated: Wed., Sep. 30, 2009, 4:05 AM home
Buying Time for Iran
By AMIR TAHERI
Last Updated: 4:05 AM, September 30, 2009
Posted: 2:11 AM, September 30, 2009
DIPLOMATS call it President Obama's first major interna tional test, while
pundits see it as a diplomatic version of the gunfight at the OK Corral.
"It," of course, is tomorrow's meeting in Geneva between Iran and the 5+1
group -- the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
Yet the meeting will likely be far less dramatic than the hype.
To start with, it's not quite clear what the meeting is about.
Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, insists he's going to Geneva to talk
about a range of issues: eliminating world poverty, saving the environment,
shaping a better future for mankind. (Apparently, there wasn't room on the
agenda for saving the whales.)
European Union foreign-policy "czar" Javier Solana, meanwhile, sees the
encounter as the latest in a series of "exchanges with Iran" that started 30
Yet Obama has a more modest goal: He wants Iran to use the occasion to
"demonstrate its peaceful intentions." He says he's "committed to building a
relationship with Iran" and that his offer of "a serious, meaningful
dialogue" remains open.
In other words, the talks may cover everything except what they really
should be about: persuading Iran to comply with three mandatory Security
With the advent of the Obama administration, it has become impolite even to
mention the resolutions that order Iran to stop its uranium-enrichment
program and honor its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The administration is developing a habit of setting itself the lowest
possible foreign-policy goals -- and then failing to achieve them. (On the
Arab-Israeli issue, for example, Obama's goal was a freeze of Jewish
settlements in the West Bank -- an objective he's had to abandon.)
Thus, if we listen to Obama, tomorrow's talks are not about the Islamic
Republic's compliance with the UN resolutions but about persuading it to
show "significant cooperation" in the next three months.
But how to measure that "significant cooperation"? Obama's answer is simple:
By year's end, Iran should open its newly declared "secret" center for
uranium enrichment to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy
Hmm. The IAEA inspectors are in Tehran right now, and the site is just an
hour's drive away. Why do we need to wait three months for them to have a
look? Do we need to give Iran the time to "sanitize" the site to ensure that
the inspectors find nothing incriminating?
It is clear that both sides want to buy time.
Iran is happy to drag out the process, with three-month tranches if need be,
until it has assembled all it needs to build the bomb. A recent editorial in
the daily Kayhan, the chief organ of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said it
all in its headline: "Talking for the sake of talking."
The more talks there are, the more time Iran will have to complete a program
that, it argues, is perfectly legal and peaceful.
Obama, meanwhile, has already given Iran an extra year during which the
number of Iranian centrifuges for uranium enrichment will reach the magic
figure of 10,000, compared to just 800 when he took office. Yet he is still
anxious to buy time -- because, having distanced himself from the UN
resolutions, he can't return to them without offering a strategy for forcing
a defiant Iran to comply.
The administration's confusion about the issue is illustrated by Defense
Secretary Robert Gates' recent remarks: "Iran has the intention to build a
nuclear arsenal," he says -- but adds that it isn't clear that "the decision
to build the bomb has already been taken."
How does he expect Iran to prove that it doesn't have "the intention" to
build the bomb?
Iranian leaders have always said they have no such intention. And Iran has
supposedly already shown its intent by signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation
Treaty almost 40 years ago.
Six years ago, Iran also promised to adopt a set of new protocols to
strengthen that treaty. But Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad canceled
the promise -- because he realized that the 5+1 lacked the backbone to
impose the UN resolutions.
Obama faces a terrible dilemma.
He must know that, if Iran doesn't stop enrichment in accordance with the UN
resolutions, there's no guarantee that it won't become a nuclear-armed power
whenever its leaders so decide.
At the same time, he knows that if Iran refuses to scrap its enrichment
program, the United States and its allies may have to use force to impose
the UN resolutions.
Obama has a dire choice: Accept a nuclear-armed Iran, or go to war to
Paradoxically, his perceived softness (symbolized by his willingness to
ignore the UN resolutions) may have encouraged those in Tehran who argue
that the 5+1 is all bluff and that the Islamic Republic must stick to its
own nuclear strategy.
To cover the expected failure of the Geneva talks, the president is already
talking of imposing "new and tougher sanctions."
Talking of sanctions, of course, is one way of admitting your failure to
persuade an adversary to do what you want through talks and/or threats. A
sanctions policy is really a stall -- a way to seem to be addressing an
issue when you can't figure out what meaningful action to take.
In short, we already know what we'll "learn" from tomorrow's meeting: Iran
has an excellent chance of becoming a nuclear power on Obama's watch.
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