- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2005

There is some good news to report following Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s belligerent defense of Tehran’s nuclear program when he appeared Saturday before the U.N. Security Council. His shrill rhetoric — which included describing the United States as an aggressor bent on enforcing a “nuclear apartheid,” questioning whether terrorists were behind September 11 and suggesting that the U.S. military was intentionally poisoning American troops in Iraq — seem to be persuading the European Union that Tehran has no intention of complying with its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The European reaction to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s presentation contrasted sharply with the response to a speech delivered three months ago at the United Nations at a conference on the future of the treaty by then-Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. Like the president, the foreign minister made it clear that Iran was prepared to do pretty much what it pleased as far as its nuclear program is concerned. But in part because he used a much softer tone in making his case, the Europeans declared themselves reassured about Iran’s intentions.

Because Mr. Ahmadinejad and the people around him make no effort to hide their contempt for the Europeans, it has become virtually impossible for the EU to continue pretending that Iran’s intentions are unclear or even benign. Yet, even as the EU was working with Washington on the language to be presented to the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency for a resolution censuring Iran, European diplomats began to have second thoughts about taking action.

Even if Iran were referred to the Security Council and sanctions were imposed (an unlikely scenario given the likelihood that Russia and China are strongly opposed to any action against Tehran) it is unclear what this would accomplish. While sanctions would undoubtedly weaken the regime at some level, it is doubtful that this will persuade Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to end 20 years of cheating and concealment of its nuclear program — nearly all of which has been reported on by the IAEA.

It is entirely possible that Iran already has all of the materials it needs to produce nuclear weapons. It has received ballistic-missile technology from North Korea that could eventually give it the ability to deliver such weapons. Judging from Mr. Ahmadinejad’s behavior (and subsequent Iranian threats to retaliate against nations that support referring Iran’s case to the Security Council), Iran could well conclude that more sanctions are just the cost of doing business and that that price is worth paying in order to continue its clandestine efforts to produce atomic weapons.

Amir Taheri, a highly respected Iranian exile who carefully monitors events in the country, says there are indications that Ayatollah Khamenei and company may be preparing for some form of military confrontation with Washington. Since Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election in June, the regime has embarked on a plan to double the defense budget by 2010, and there have been purges of the defense minister, the commander-in-chief of the regular army, the interior minister and the minister of intelligence, and military officers are being appointed to posts, including governors and mayors, that are ordinarily held by civilians. A bunker-like structure has been set up in the town of Mashhad to house Ayatollah Khamenei, along with other senior figures in the government and parliament in the event that war with Washington or another enemy erupts, Mr. Taheri believes. All of this may be coincidence, and perhaps there is a relatively benign explanation for this. But Tehran’s behavior does not encourage optimism. Given the large-scale transnational terrorist network Iran supports, the possibility that Mr. Taheri is correct should be very worrisome to U.S. policy-makers.

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Bush called Iran “the world’s primary state sponsor of terror,” adding that the United States is “working with European allies to make clear to the Iranian regime that it must give up its uranium enrichment program and any plutonium reprocessing.”

In light of Iran’s contemptuous response to the concerns of Washington and Europe, making good on his call for Iran to come clean has become one of the president’s most difficult foreign-policy challenges.

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