Review and Outlook
So the International Atomic Energy Agency adopts a resolution Monday holding Iran to a "non-legally binding," "voluntary" and "confidence-building" commitment to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Tehran immediately declares it will abide by the agreement for no more than a few months. And our European friends tell us it's a triumph of their tough-minded but subtly adaptive brand of diplomacy.
In the words of fashion philosophe Kenneth Cole, Are they putting us on?
Because Iran's endless gaming of the IAEA is fast becoming a story of short memories getting shorter, it's useful to recap the events of just the past two weeks. In mid-November, Tehran finalized an agreement with Britain, France and Germany to suspend its uranium-enrichment program -- crucially and explicitly including the use of uranium-enriching centrifuges. In exchange, Europe promised not to refer the Islamic Republic's known and suspected breaches of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose economic sanctions.
No sooner was the ink dry on that agreement than Iran rushed to convert 22 tons of uranium ore into uranium hexaflouride gas, which can be enriched to weapons-grade levels. Then Iran proceeded to demand that it be allowed to operate 20 centrifuges, ostensibly for the purposes of research and development. On this point, however, the Europeans held firm, Iran relented, and the IAEA resolution was passed. But not before Iran obtained some further watering-down of the resolution's language.
Even without the 20 centrifuges, the Iranian-European entente is a triumph for Tehran. It gives the mullahs diplomatic cover against the U.S. It implies a promise of open-ended European economic, technical and political aid. And it gives Iran the right to restart its nuclear programs at any moment without even being in technical breach of the IAEA resolution. All this without even touching Iran's undeclared and illicit nuclear programs, which are active and numerous and mostly beyond the IAEA's capacity to monitor.
For all this, it's possible the Europeans really do believe they've struck a credible bargain. The Bush Administration can hardly be so persuaded. In a speech to the IAEA Board of Governors, U.S. Ambassador Jackie Sanders noted that Monday's resolution was the sixth of its kind passed since September 2003, and that in nearly all cases IAEA demands remained "unmet" or "unresolved."
"Iran has repeatedly demonstrated bad faith," she said, "and the United States has long lost any illusions that Iran's ultimate intentions are peaceful." Nevertheless, the United States went along with the IAEA resolution.
Part of the reason for this, no doubt, is a personal concession by President Bush to his Iraq ally Tony Blair, who has his own domestic reasons for supporting the diplomatic track. But the Administration also seems to hope, and perhaps expect, that the Iranians are bound to again renege in some obvious way on their commitments, and probably sooner than later. At that point, presumably, the President's debt to the Prime Minister will have been paid, and a chagrined Europe will have no choice but to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council.
Then again, if the Europeans haven't been embarrassed by Iran's six previous compliance failures, why should a seventh be different? Tony Blair may yet be brought aboard, but it is hard to see the rest of the Security Council doing so. The aggregate value of French exports to Iran amounts to $2.4 billion, not a huge sum but double what it was five years ago. Russia is building Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant. As for China, it gets 13.6% of its oil from Iran; the Chinese state-owned oil giant Sinopec was recently invited by Tehran to develop the huge Yadavaran gas field.
These countries are not going to line up behind sanctions under any circumstances, no matter how conclusive the evidence of Iranian malfeasance. They worry more about losing contracts than they do about an Iranian Bomb. The sooner the Administration admits this, the sooner it can escape the IAEA trap and begin to assess its options realistically.
One such option is to provide active and serious support for Iranian opposition groups, as the U.S. did with Poland's Solidarity movement in the 1980s. The Iranian people may or may not like the idea of a Persian bomb, but they are, broadly speaking, the most pro-American in the Muslim world and they despise the clique of clerics who have squelched democratic reform while presiding over a sinking economy.
Such support is right in itself but it can also give the U.S. indirect leverage with the regime on the nuclear issue. Of course, it would help if the Administration finally made up its own mind about how -- or indeed whether -- it seriously intends to stop the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism from becoming its 10th nuclear power.