Playing Into Iran's Hands
Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology has highlighted the venality, impotence and outright incompetence of the world's leading nations. While the Iranian nuclear scientists forge ahead on a program that almost certainly encompasses weapons technology, nearly every nation that has touched the situation finds itself tainted by failure of its own making.
Negotiations between Britain, Germany, France (EU3) and Iran were declared dead on Jan. 12. This impasse came two days after Iranian authorities broke the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seals on key nuclear technology centers, which had been inactive for two and a half years. The IAEA Board of Governors will convene on Feb. 2 to consider referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council.
China and Russia deserve special criticism for the unforgivably myopic and self-serving attitudes that they have brought to the subsequent negotiations. China, which holds long-term industrial and energy contracts with Iran, has been vocal in its opposition to sanctions and may go so far as to veto punitive action should the IAEA send the Iran matter to the Security Council. Clearly, Beijing studied the U.S.-Saudi relationship. China, which is projected to become the world's leading consumer of oil if current growth rates are sustained, has given Iran an economic alternative to the West and a viable solution to Western sanctions. China is unwilling to take a tough stand against Iran's nuclear research in a crisis it perceives as a Western problem.
Russia is selling weapons and offering to build nuclear reactors for Iran even as the crisis comes to a head. Recent Russian sales of air-defense systems to Tehran were valued at over one billion dollars, and Russia seems eager to build a second nuclear reactor for the Iranians (they also built the first). Russia has offered to refine -- in transparent fashion -- Iran's uranium to reactor grade but not to weapons grade. European Union doubts about the viability of the plan suggest that Russia may be muddying the waters and simply trying to buy time for Tehran. Finally, Russia has echoed China's reservations about the need for sanctions and may be willing to use its veto as a permanent member of the Security Council.
U.S. impotence in the face of Iranian weapons development is a huge blow to U.S. credibility. It is ironic to watch the Bush Administration, once the world's leading proponent of unilateral action and military solutions, try to advocate diplomacy with a straight face. The administration knows that it has fired its bolt in Iraq and no longer possesses enough uncommitted forces to plausibly threaten the Iranian regime.
The U.S. headache in Iraq has given Iran the confidence to unearth Revolutionary-era anti-Western rhetoric and pursue nuclear technology with impunity. Before the invasion of Iraq, when U.S. power was still credible, a diplomatic solution could have been pursued, but not anymore; Iran has the U.S. over a barrel.
The limited U.S. air strike options that remain on the table present win-win outcomes for Iranian leadership. The use of force would only bolster the popularity of Iran's most conservative leaders, especially firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Moreover, the wide dispersal of Iran's research facilities and the fact that many are buried virtually ensure the survival of the nuclear program. The nuclear programs enjoy a popularity among Iranians that transcends age and politics. U.S. strikes against Iran would be self-defeating.
The EU3 nations deserve some blame for the downward spiral that the negotiations have become. Tony Blair's Britain contributed to the U.S. adventure in Iraq that has both impressed upon Iran the value of deterrent and hamstrung Western power long enough for Iran to build that deterrent.
The French, who were smart enough to stay out of Iraq, recently committed the most tactless act of nuclear saber rattling since Boris Yeltsin reminded NATO in 1999 that Russia was "still a nuclear power." Jacques Chirac's Thursday warning that France could use nuclear force against states that sponsored nuclear terrorism was no revelation, but its timing served to remind the Iranians that the Western powers respect nuclear capability above all.
The international community has failed to rise to Iran's challenge. Shortsighted pursuit of self-interest by all of the major players has created a crisis that can only end badly in the long run. The potential for Iran to adopt North Korean-style recurring nuclear blackmail is real. The perceived weakness of the Western democracies in the face of Iranian threats promises to galvanize anti-Western radicals and will allow Iran to assume a position of leadership in this movement.