- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

In recent days, the European Union has toughened somewhat its rhetorical treatment of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain could back referring Iranian violations of nuclear agreements with Europe to the United Nations Security Council, where Tehran could face economic or political sanctions. The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany — the “European Union 3” nations who have been trying to negotiate a resolution with Tehran for nearly two years — have warned Iran that it would be courting trouble if it restarts enrichment activities.

For its part, Iran, which has spent the past few years blustering about its plans to go forward with enrichment and asserting its “rights” to do pretty much whatever it pleases with regard to its nuclear program, has sounded a somewhat less bellicose tone in recent days.

There are several ways to interpret the recent moves by the EU and Iran. One is that the Europeans, fed up with nearly two years of broken promises from Tehran, have finally decided to stand up to the mullahs. Were this indeed the case, it would suggest that the Bush administration’s policy initiated several months ago of supporting the EU’s efforts to reward Iran with incentives if it comes clean about its nuclear-weapons programs is working.

While we commend President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for their extraordinary efforts to persuade the Europeans to take a realistic position toward Tehran, little appears to have changed for now. There is still a great deal we don’t know about Iran’s nuclear programs, a result of Tehran’s determination to conceal things and the inability of Western intelligence agencies to penetrate a hostile, secretive authoritarian regime.

In fact, Iran’s behavior — whether fomenting a crisis one day or suggesting that it is prepared to negotiate in good faith the next — may have at least as much to do with how successful it is in surmounting technical barriers as it does with the West’s diplomatic approach: When Iran’s nuclear activities hit technical barriers, it suspends them. When the problems get resolved, Iran unfreezes the program.

For example, according to Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Iran’s freeze of its centrifuge programs in October 2003 may have been directly related to a technical problem of linking individual centrifuges into so-called cascades, the only practical way to enrich uranium. When an Iranian facility in Isfahan was prepared to produce uranium hexafluoride, a feedstock for centrifuges one year later, Iran ended the freeze and began operating that facility. Once it learned that only the first part of that process worked well, Iran agreed to renew the freeze.

There are other problems. Given the fact that centrifuges can be produced in small facilities — no larger than a typical U.S. home — that are easy to conceal, it is entirely possible that Iran has separate covert centrifuge facilities enriching uranium for nuclear weapons that Western intelligence agencies know nothing about.

Nor is the Western policy approach likely to change anytime soon. Iran’s elections will take place June 17. Although the elections are unlikely to stop the mullahs’ A-bomb programs, they are likely to strengthen the hand of those in the West, particularly Europe, who will argue that we need to give the new Iranian president a chance to organize his new government, etc. That will give the regime more time to operate without meaningful pressure to end its arms programs and to continue its work to overcome technical obstacles to producing nuclear weapons.

While this occurs, the situation with North Korea — Iran’s rogue-state ally — grows more dire. Pyongyang has been rattling sabers with its apparent preparations for a nuclear-weapons test. Japan has warned North Korea to return to the six-party talks over its nuclear plans or risk being referred to the Security Council. Thus far, however, in both the cases of Iran and North Korea, these threats appear to have had negligible impact in stopping rogue-state nuclear programs.

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