Nuclear red flag on Iran

Over the past 18 months, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has toyed with the international community in ways that ought to sound ominously familiar.

Challenged in February 2003 to allow inspectors to visit previously undisclosed nuclear sites, Iran stiffed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). When it finally allowed inspectors to tour some sites, they discovered evidence Iran was engaged in a massive, undercover effort to enrich uranium, possibly for weapons purposes.

A showdown between the Vienna-based nuclear agency and Iran appeared imminent last November, when IAEA Secretary General Mohammad El Baradei was scheduled to deliver his findings on Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities to the IAEA board of governors. In theory, Mr. El Baradei had only to say Iran was “in violation” of its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the board would refer Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council for enforcement action.

But Mr. El Baradei never uttered those words, perhaps fearing the Security Council, once seized of Iran’s case, would refuse to act, just as it had when faced with Saddam Hussein’s constant flaunting of the international community since 1998.

As a sign of “good will,” the Iranian regime agreed to halt its enrichment activities, at least in theory. In exchange, the IAEA, with U.S. approval, delegated the European powers — France, Britain and Germany — to find a solution that would allow Iran to keep its civilian nuclear power plant while shutting down the clandestine weapons-grade fuel program.

By June, it became clear the Iranian government had just been stalling for time. When the IAEA accused the Iranians of “foot-dragging” and not shutting down its enrichment sites, Iranian Foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi told reporters in Tehran that Iran was determined to become “a member of the nuclear club. This is an irreversible path.”

Iran’s much-beloved (in the West) “moderate” President Mohammad Khatami piled on, announcing July 15 Iran intended to continue building uranium enrichment centrifuges. “We are not committed any longer to the promise to expand the suspension to include building centrifuges because they [Britain, Germany and France] failed to keep their promise of closing Iran’s dossier,” he said.

What he meant, of course, was the Europeans had been unable to get the U.S. to agree to the convenient fiction Iran was enriching uranium because it needed a sure supply of fuel for its one, not-yet completed, nuclear power station at Busheir. In fact, as part of the original reactor deal, the Russians had agreed to supply fuel for 10 years at cost of $30 million — a modest sum compared to the billions Iran now is spending to build the infrastructure to master the entire nuclear fuel cycle.

So far, neither President Bush nor Sen. John Kerry has chosen to address this imminent nuclear showdown. White House advisors tell me the president hopes he can keep the crisis from boiling over until after the elections, when presumably he will have a freer hand to deal forcefully with a nuclear-ready Iran. Mr. Kerry has avoided the issue because he has promised top Iranian-American fund-raisers close to the regime in Tehran that if elected he will “open a dialogue” with Iran. He has repeated that offer in public speeches, including an address to the Council on Foreign Relations last December.

The president’s advisers are undoubtedly right to argue the best time politically to deal with the impending Iran nuclear crisis is after November. But the longer we allow the Iranians to continue building and enriching and burying and deploying missiles capable of launching a nuclear warhead on Israel and other U.S. allies in the region, the more perilous the eventual confrontation will become.

The mullahs in Tehran are no fools. They are working furiously to assemble enough nuclear capability by Nov. 3 to dramatically increase the price of any U.S. (or Israeli) military pre-emptive strike. Their plan is to become “nuclear-ready” — that is, to have bombs and missiles built, just waiting for the final turn of the screw that seals in the fissile cores — as fast as humanly possible. This is a crash program, and we are responding like a desert tortoise.

Mr. Kerry has made clear his preference to refer all security challenges to the United Nations for action. But in the case of Iran, deferring to the U.N. will be even more divisive than when the villain was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Not only will France threaten to veto Security Council action on Iran, but Russia and China could well join them. The French, as with Saddam, will act to preserve a presumed commercial advantage with the Tehran regime. The Russians and Chinese will seek to cover up the record of their own actions as key suppliers and enablers of Iran’s nuclear weapons effort.

There are many things the president can do between now and November short of military action or turning to a feckless U.N. that could have significant deterrent impact on the Tehran regime. Among them, the U.S. should:

• Rapidly, and massively fund opposition radio and television networks for Farsi language broadcasts into Iran.

• Help produce TV programs for training young Iranians in civil disobedience, and offer the programs free to opposition television networks and air them on Voice of America.

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