Iran continues to negotiate with the Russians, confident that once more President Bush and Secretary of State Rice will be out smarted by the Iranian’s end game strategy. We should never forget that the Persians invented the game of chess and the Iranians are masters at conducting the type of contradictory gambits that typically win brilliantly.
With the March 6 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) scheduled to vote on referring Iran to the Security Council, Iran is suddenly announcing they have reached an agreement with Russia to enrich uranium on Russian territory, a deal Iran has consistently rejected for months. Also, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has hinted that the only solution might be to allow Iran to enrich “a little bit” of uranium, the amount needed for “research and development,” but not for “full scale” enrichment.
These end game gambits are calculated to give Iran the wiggle room needed to throw the March 6 IAEA meeting into enough doubt and hesitation that the vote to refer Iran to the Security Council will most likely be postponed once more. Once more, Iran expects to leave the United States holding the diplomatic bag, empty of meaningful results.
Russia is working overtime to protect their new Iranian client state. The Russian-built Iranian reactor at Bushehr should be nearly ready to go on-line. At the end of last year, Russia sold Iran $1 billion worth to their TOR-M1 surface-to-air defense system which Iran plans to position around the country’s dozens of nuclear facilities. Even should the U.S. finally manage to get the IAEA to vote Iran to the Security Council, Russia and China as permanent members will certainly block any meaningful move to intensify sanctions. In the last few weeks, Iran and China have pulled out the stops to conclude their deal to sell China $100 billion worth of Iranian oil and natural gas, allowing China to become a principal partner in the development of the Iranian giant Yadavaran oil field.
Last week, a Bush administration unforced error gave Tehran an unexpected advantage. By advancing the Dubai Ports World deal to take over operations in some 22 U.S. ports, the Bush administration turned a blind eye to the $300 billion the mullahs and their cronies have stashed away in Dubai investments. The capital flight from Iran has also permitted the wealthy mullahs to buy luxurious resort vacation homes, nicely away from the orthodox morality the mullahs are expected to display when adhering to their ultra-conservative version of political correctness back home.
The litmus test of the negotiations will be whether or not the mullahs resume their moratorium on uranium enrichment in Iran. If the uranium processing facility at Isfahan remains open and the centrifuges continue to run at Natanz, Iran wins. Iran fully expects that the world will settle at the last minute to breathe a sigh of relief simply because they have agreed to accept the Russian “compromise.” Yes, the mullahs are happy to enrich uranium in Russia, taking full advantage of Russian expertise to advance them along the uranium enrichment learning curve. Iran, however, also plans to continue operating Isfahan and Natanz if only for uranium enrichment “research and development” purposes. This is intended to be a loophole large enough for a mullah to drive a uranium ore truck through, on the way to the nuclear weapons uranium processing plant.
If the Bush administration fails to get a March 6 IAEA vote referring Iran to the Security Council, we will have wasted two years playing a frustrating negotiation game to Iran’s advantage. But then, what else should we expect, even from a referral to the Security Council? How does the Bush administration plan to have sanctions make any impact on the mullahs when if we allow their investment capital and plush vacation retreats to remain safe in Dubai?
Even if the mullahs weren’t so clever, the Bush administration appears to be on such a self-destruct mission ever since the Harriet Miers nomination. Now, with the DP World unforced error, the mullahs have every reason to believe not necessarily that they will win, but that we will lose, as long as the end game involves nothing more than moving pieces on the chessboard of diplomacy.