- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

Though Iran, its nuclear program and anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric continue to make headlines, amid worries of a growing and inflammatory Shi’ite Iran-Iraq-Lebanon influence, we have yet to near a turning point. There is no need to rush to military action. But some long-term investments should be made.

Iran delivered its formal response to the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany last Tuesday. Tehran’s answer to the package of incentives was delivered in advance of the deadline — Aug. 31 — after which sanctions could be administered in an attempt to curb the country’s nuclear weapons ambition. Though details of the offer and reply were not made public, senior Iranian leaders and officials stated beforehand the response would be multifaceted, address ambiguities over its right to civil nuclear technology and would not involve an immediate suspension of uranium enrichment. Predictably, Iran is publicly offering to negotiate, but this is seen by many as playing for time.

Even though Iran is now required by a U.N. Security Council resolution to suspend its uranium-enrichment program, this diplomacy is played out against a backdrop of limited cooperation at the declared Iranian facilities. IAEA inspections are allowed to the letter of the law — the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) — but such inspections have few teeth. Though Iran has signed the treaty extension — the Addition Protocol — that gives inspectors more powers to discover illegal weapons-related activities, it is not yet in force. Such treaties must be ratified — approved by the domestic legislature — before they take effect. Though the United States is not setting a very good example in this respect, it has yet to ratify the Additional Protocol, which President Clinton signed in 1998. Another example of partisan politics prevailing over the security needs of America?

The absence of these extra measures hamper IAEA efforts and allow Iran to maintain its position: compliance with the NPT and the right — however illogical for a rich oil state — to pursue development of civil nuclear technologies, including its own fuel cycle. This behavior could prove troublesome if ever a need arises to verify the suspension of Iran’s enrichment activities.

A pattern seems to be emerging, not dissimilar to that so effectively used by North Korea, to exploit the rules and delay international action until it withdrew from the NPT and declared it had nuclear weapons. Iran’s multifaceted response will play for time, seek to weaken U.S. influence on the matter and create ambiguity.

However, Iran differs from North Korea in two important respects. The nuclear program is popular and the government enjoys significant popular support. And it has oil. Observers often talk of the race between democracy and Tehran’s development of the bomb, but a future democratic Iran would not necessarily eschew nuclear weapons.

Anti-American and anti-Western feelings in the Middle East are likely to take generations to fade, even if Iraq is ever perceived as a success. Iran’s oil gives it two advantages: by cutting production and influencing the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Tehran can inflict economic damage on the West. And it has money. Iran is able to influence Russia and others. Such countries may be tempted to sell nuclear technologies or otherwise breach sanctions.

Critics of U.S. policy say sanctions will fail, but this will be used by America to justify military action. Though the language of the resolution could allow such legal interpretation, it was not the intention of Russia and China. And with the U.S.-led coalition entanglement in Afghanistan and Iraq and developing international commitments in the Lebanon, it would seem unlikely military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be taken in the foreseeable future.

So what are the options? There is no silver bullet to end this issue. America and the international community must continue to use all their tools in harmony — a multifaceted approach — to thwart Iran’s ambitions. Estimates of the time it would take for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons — 5 to 10 years — indicate there is no immediate danger. So there is time to continue with diplomatic engagement.

Equally, the effects, on all parties, of sanctions can be evaluated over a significant period. And there will still be time for the next U.S. administration to address the problem before Iran reaches the nuclear threshold.

The best the current administration can do are to concentrate on improving the situation in Iraq and Lebanon — including combating state-sponsored terrorism — to deny Iran any leverage through those arenas; urge restraint from Israel; and work with Congress to ensure the needed investments are made in conventional and nuclear strike capabilities. Such weapons — procured in small enough numbers to demonstrate they are not part of a new arms race with Russia or China — might have to be considered as part of the counterproliferation solution in the future. But these can act as a deterrent in the shorter term.

A multiyear, multifaceted approach of diplomacy, sanctions, nonproliferation measures and investments in tailored counterproliferation capabilities, is required. It will slow Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, give it time to evolve toward democracy, allow time for resolution of the current crises in the Middle East and, if these fail to turn the tide of Iran’s nuclear proliferation, provide a firm foundation for counterproliferation strikes as a last resort.

OWEN PRICE

Visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed are his own.

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