- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Iran’s removal of U.N. seals at its Natanz nuclear-enrichment plant and its resumption of nuclear research should be seen for what it is: the latest example of a 20-year campaign — much of it documented by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency in a report in late 2003 — to cheat and conceal its programs to develop nuclear weapons in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Iranian announcement has triggered familiar rituals in Washington, London, Paris and Bonn and Vienna. The Bush administration wants to refer the case of Iran to the U.N. Security Council. In addition to Washington, the other four permanent members of the council (Russia, France, China and Britain) warned Iran that it could face censure and sanctions because of its defiance. Even the usually lethargic head of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei, said he is “losing his patience” with Iran and that it is approaching a “red line for the international community.”

Given the circumspection with which international diplomats conduct themselves, this rhetoric strongly suggests that we are building toward an international crisis of some kind. The more important question — answers to which remain unknown — is whether any means of coercing Iran short of using military force have any serious likelihood of changing Tehran’s behavior.

For example, because the quality of our intelligence inside Iran appears to be weak, we don’t know if Tehran has all of the materials it needs to develop nuclear weapons, or whether its ability to produce such armaments depends upon its ability to continue to receive outside aid from countries such as Russia, China, North Korea or Pakistan. It is anyone’s guess whether the United States will be able to persuade some or all of these countries to cooperate: Given the behavior of North Korean boss Kim Jong-il and Pyongyang’s own record of nuclear cheating, for example, there is ample reason for skepticism there. As for China — North Korea’s Communist superpower patron and a regime with a long record of aiding Iranian military programs — a senior aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed doubt that Beijing would provide meaningful cooperation with U.S. efforts to use coercive diplomacy against Iran.

The prospect of taking military action raises different, and probably unanswerable questions. We don’t know, for example, where all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are, or how effective would be military action that destroyed some but not all of Iran’s nuclear-weapons sites. Nor do we know how Iran and the terrorist groups it supports (some, like Hezbollah, with sleeper cells in the United States) would react.

We do know, however, that Iran is a violent, paranoid regime, a leading state supporter of terrorism, with nuclear and ballistic-missile development programs that give it the ability to target Israel and much of Europe, and that the world will become a much more dangerous place if it gets nuclear weapons. Iran’s resumption of enrichment serves as our latest reminder that Armageddon may be inching closer.

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