- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

As the new Iranian president prepares to be sworn into office, the Islamist regime in Tehran has been stepping up its campaign of threats and brinksmanship directed at the European Union. Ever since evidence of Iran’s extensive efforts to develop nuclear weapons became public two years ago, the “EU 3” — Britain, France and Germany — have labored unsuccessfully to use diplomacy and promises of economic aid to persuade Tehran to bargain away its efforts to produce atomic weapons.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post published a front-page story quoting information apparently leaked from a new National Intelligence Estimate as projecting that Iran is a decade away from getting such weapons, roughly doubling earlier estimates. But there is plenty of reason to be extremely cautious about relying on such estimates when assessing the behavior of a police state. Just as American intelligence agencies overestimated the progress of Iraq’s WMD programs, it is entirely possible that they have underestimated the progress made by Iran. If the latter is true, the consequences of basing policy on such a faulty estimate would be catastrophic if it turned out that Iran has clandestinely managed to make greater strides toward developing nuclear weapons than Washington realized, and Tehran obtains the A-bomb. In a July 23 interview, Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s point man in negotiations with the EU, said Tehran has bought time for its nuclear program during the past 21 months, while the talks with the Europeans have continued.

President Bush has made clear the policy of the United States: Iran cannot be permitted to have such weapons. Although the Bush administration has been skeptical of the European approach, in the spring Washington decided to throw its weight behind the EU’s Iran initiative. And, in fairness to the EU, this much is true: If the Europeans, working in tandem with the International Atomic Energy Agency, can put together the right package of incentives to: 1) persuade Iran to peacefully give up its nuclear-weapons programs; 2) get Iran to agree to an inspections regime that is sufficiently intrusive to enable us to verify that disarmament has actually taken place; and 3) agree with the United States on penalties that the Iranian regime will face if it cheats. It would be in the our national interest to support this.

Unfortunately, the evidence thus far suggests that nothing of the sort is going to happen. In fact, since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the Iranian presidential runoff in June, Iranian’s behavior has become increasingly truculent and menacing. Hardly a day goes by without some new threat or non-negotiable demand from the Iranians. Invariably, the bullying is followed by some statement indicating some vague willingness to negotiate if the Europeans meet some new demands for economic or political concessions. On Sunda, Hadreza Assefi, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry of Iran, said his government would send the IAEA a letter of its decision to resume work at its Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan. The facility turns uranium ore (also known as “yellowcake”) into gas which can be enriched and used as fuel for nuclear weapons. In recent days, the EU 3 has been talking about offering Iran a new package of economic, technological and other incentives to persuade it to maintain a “freeze” on enrichment. But Iran has been saying that it will not give up its nuclear enrichment program.

On Monday, Iran announced it had formally notified the IAEA that it is resuming uranium enrichment at Isfahan. That same day, Britain’s Foreign Office, speaking on behalf of the of the 25-member EU, promised Iran that it would have a “full and comprehensive proposal” (e.g., new concessions) for Iran. Meanwhile, Washington is hinting that it is prepared to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for consideration of sanctions against Iran. Aside from the fact that European support in the Security Council is far from assured (as is the case with Russia and China, either of whom could veto sanctions), it remains to be seen whether sanctions will be sufficient to dramatically alter Iranian behavior. There is no question that sanctions could cause economic pain for the regime, the Iranian military, and even the terrorist groups the government supports. Whether that is enough to persuade the Ayatollah Khamenei and the mullahcrats to jettison nuclear weapons — a goal they have been pursuing for at least two decades — is anyone’s guess. It is entirely possible that all this will simply allow the dictatorship in Tehran to stall for time while it resumes activities at Isfahan (and continues unimpeded with any covert weapons programs).

Right now, Iran sounds increasingly confident, while the Western democracies appear tentative and uncertain. If there is reason for optimism that Iranian nukes can be thwarted by peaceful means, the EU and Washington have been very successful at keeping it hidden from view.

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