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It Takes Three to Tango with Tehran

Is the Bush Administration hell-bent on confronting Iran?

November 19, 2004

Is the Bush Administration hell-bent on confronting Iran?

With neoconservatives rising anew in Washington, the harder-line Bush security team may be in no mood to talk to Iran's mullahs.

Rather, the Bush Administration's message to Europe may be a simple as this: You guys still don't get it. We want the regime out of Tehran — not just the weapons.

The Iranian situation is both simple and complex. Tehran has been caught concealing a decade-long effort to build facilities for fuel for its planned nuclear power reactors. The problem is not the reactors Iran wants. It is what goes into — and out of — these reactors.

The same technologies that can enrich uranium to low-levels for reactor fuel can enrich it to high-levels for nuclear weapons. The same reprocessing facility that separates the plutonium from the spent fuel rods for disposal can separate it for weapons use as well.

By not reporting the construction of these facilities and the import of various equipment and material, Iran violated its treaty obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

But after two years of inspections, the new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that the agency has not found any evidence of weapon-related work.

The IAEA report states that all declared nuclear material has been accounted for — and that there is no evidence of bomb designs, components or other telltale signs of a weapons program.

The risk is that if Iran continues to build these facilities — as allowed under the NPT — the country could come right up to the edge of nuclear weapon capability. It could then withdraw from the treaty and openly declare itself a nuclear weapon state.

All the nations involved agree that Iran cannot be allowed to continue on its path toward nuclear weapons — but diverge on how to stop it from getting there.

Americans may not remember — but Iranians do — that the Iranian nuclear program began under the Shah. The United States sold Iran its first reactor in the 1960s.

Declassified memos from the National Security Council show that President Ford in 1976 approved plans for the Shah — installed by Washington after a CIA-engineered coup overthrew democratically-elected President Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 — to build uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing plants.

The Shah wanted to build 22 nuclear reactors to generate 23 million megawatts of electric power. All this while the country was just as oil-rich as it is today. It is no wonder that U.S. objections today smack of gross hypocrisy to Iranians.

The nuclear plans have now become a national issue and prestige project, supported by religious and reform groups across Iran's political spectrum.

The deal that could resolve the entire issue seems obvious to the Europeans and many observers: It would allow Iran to continue with building reactors and offer mutually beneficial trade and economic deals in exchange for Iran giving up the capability to produce its own reactor fuel.

Instead of Iran having fuel production capacity of its own, Russia or Europe will supply the uranium fuel — and pick it up for disposal.

As part of the bargain, the United States would repudiate any strategy of violently overthrowing the Iranian government. The United States would instead selectively engage Iran — along with Europe — in a long-term process to integrate the country into global institutions.

Under this plan, Iran could become a force for stability in the region and reform and democracy might then develop within Iran — not be imported through haphazard outside military intervention. The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations recommended just such a plan in a task force report in the fall of 2004.

This is not the Bush plan, however, which seems to aim at regime change as part a larger effort to rearrange the Middle East's geopolitical landscape. Iraq was always seen as the first step to this greater effort.

The reshuffles of President Bush's cabinet following his November 2, 2004, reelection, seem to be clearing the decks of objectors in preparation for phase two.

Military strikes against Iran — favored heavily by Israel — are still an option pushed by a minority in the Bush Administration. But this option could gain momentum fast, just as the plan to invade Iraq went from an unlikely scenario advocated by a small clique of administration insiders to the main objective of U.S. foreign policy in just one year.

The resignation of Colin Powell and the rise of Condoleezza Rice will likely worsen America's credibility and trust problems with Europe. Europe — and, for that matter, much of the world — now strongly question the accuracy of U.S. threat assessments.

The president, vice president and the national security advisor have barely acknowledged — let alone apologized — for their many false claims of an urgent Iraqi WMD threat.

They seem to feel, as Iraqi National Congress leader Achmed Chalabi noted, that the important thing is that they got to Baghdad, even if "we were heroes in error."

In November 2003, after EU foreign ministers won their first freeze in Iran's activities, U.S. officials had an opportunity to exploit this breakthrough and negotiate an end to a potentially hostile program.

The right combination of force and diplomacy might have worked to allow Tehran to strike a deal then and there.
However, Bush Administration hardliners prevailed. They apparently believed that they had solid evidence of Iranian violations that would allow them to bring Iran before the UN Security Council — or provide justification for military strikes against the regime.

But it was no slam dunk. A July 2004 report by the IAEA indicated that the traces of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) — which U.S. officials believed were obvious signs of Iran's weapon-related activity — can plausibly be traced back to U.S. ally, Pakistan, the source of Tehran's equipment.

This finding has since been confirmed by the IAEA's new November 2004 report, though the agency needs more cooperation from Pakistan to say for sure.

Similarly, suspicious activity at what the United States said was a nuclear weapons site at Lavisan appears to also have a plausible explanation. The IAEA found no evidence of a weapons program.

This report makes it impossible for the United States to convince any other member of the 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors to escalate the issue to the UN Security Council.

To be sure, some vital questions remain. The IAEA says that it is still not in a position to draw definitive conclusions — and faults Iran for numerous breaches of its obligations to declare activities.

New, serious allegations from an Iranian dissident group must also be investigated. Iran should immediately give the IAEA access to the suspect site fingered by the National Council of Resistance on November 17, 2004.

Still, nothing points conclusively to a clandestine weapons program. In short, the evidence — or lack thereof — can hardly be called a "smoking gun." With the evidence so murky — and with memories of Iraq so fresh — EU officials suspect that U.S. plans for Iran involve them and the United Nations only tangentially.

Some fear that Washington will highjack the UN process on Iran just as the Bush Administration highjacked the UN process on Iraq. And Europeans have reason to worry.

Under Secretary of State John Bolton — in talks with EU leaders before the final stages of their negotiations with Iran in October 2004 — wanted nothing to do with an EU-Iran agreement.

He insisted that the only path worth pursuing was bringing Iran before the Security Council — clearly with the aim of forcing tougher action in the future. The EU negotiations derailed this plan.

The Bush Administration now faces its first new transatlantic test. Is its expressed desire for a new relationship with Europe genuine? If so, the Iran issue offers an opportunity for cooperation, compromise and joint achievement.

If the Bush Administration is not serious about making a new start, all it needs to do is passively withhold U.S. approval — and the deal the EU negotiated with Iran will unravel.

The likely result of a U.S. refusal to support the deal would be a deepening of the Iran crisis. Also, calls for creating a strong Euro-counter to American power will increase — and Bush's planned European trip after his January 2005 inauguration could be a very cold one.

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