Recent nuclear talks with Iran postponed the brewing crisis and emboldened Tehran’s radical regime. The rogue emerged from those talks the clear winner and as a result a long-term solution will be more difficult to reach.
Both sides postured for the Oct. 1 talks. The week prior to the talks, the Iranians launched missiles, paraded sophisticated air defense weapons, threatened Israel, revealed a secret enrichment facility and vowed it would not be cowed by the West.
The other side, five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China) plus Germany (P-5+1), set the stage for the talks in April when President Obama agreed with the G-8 economic world leaders that Iran had until Sept. 24 and the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh to engage in meaningful talks and stop uranium enrichment or face “crippling sanctions.”
Days before that deadline Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accepted the P-5+1’s talks invitation but refused to abandon uranium enrichment. No wonder skepticism about the talks ran high.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy expressed that skepticism at the UN’s nuclear non-proliferation summit on Sept. 24. “Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions,” said Sarkozy. He said past proposals for talks resulted in “Nothing but more enriched uranium and more centrifuges” and warned “At a certain moment hard facts will force us to take decisions.”
The talks took place but the P-5+1 was not ready “to take decisions.” Tehran walked away the clear winner.
First, Iran won yet another delay to come clean before suffering so-called “crippling sanctions.” The parties agreed to talk again on Oct. 18 in Vienna and the U.S. acknowledged that any decision to punish Iran is delayed at least until year’s end.
Second, Iran will continue enriching uranium. This was a key issue for the P-5+1, but at the talks the Persians cleverly arranged a “confidence building” agreement to ship 2,600 pounds of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for further enrichment. The French agreed to turn the higher enriched uranium into rods and return them to Iran for use in a medical research reactor, which will run out of fuel next year. This deal pleased the P-5+1 because it removed most of Tehran’s known LEU from the country, enough for one bomb.
The problem with this deal is whether Tehran has hidden stocks of LEU. Iran’s long record of deception regarding its atomic activities should make the P-5+1 very suspicious. On Oct. 4, the New York Times gave cause to that suspicion when it reported the U.N. nuclear agency concluded in a confidential analysis that Iran has acquired “sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable” atom bomb.
Third, the talks appear to have put Israel’s military strike plans on hold. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The diplomatic situation vis-à-vis Iran has improved, but (Iran) is continuing with its nuclear program.” Likely, Israel has established red lines regarding Tehran’s atomic program and if crossed Jerusalem will attack with or without American support.
Finally, the talks put Tehran in a stronger diplomatic position. Iran dictated the terms of the recent talks and appears to be driving future engagement as well. It’s also significant that the U.S. has in principle accepted one-on-one talks with Tehran and as a signal, William Burns, the U.S. representative at the talks, held a 45 minute one-to-one meeting during the talks with Iran’s top negotiator. Also, to bolster Tehran’s credibility, Washington granted Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottoki a visa to visit Washington last week. It’s not clear whether the foreign minister participated in secret talks during his 14 hour overnight in Washington.
The P-5+1 got a few crumbs from Tehran to fuel the charade. The rogue promised to provide international inspectors access “within weeks” to the military-run clandestine enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom. This facility was kept secret until last week when Iran realized it was about to be exposed by the Obama administration. Expect Iran to provide limited access to the facility and withhold important information.
Iran also agreed “in principle” to put about 80 percent of its enriched uranium stocks in other than military hands. This is a positive step if all stocks are indeed accounted for and a mechanism to deny military access to those stocks is verifiable.
So what happens next?
Iran will follow the North Korean model of deception and manipulation by stretching out the negotiations by providing piecemeal cooperation. It will try to divide the P-5+1 by doing just enough to satisfy the weakest partners. Predictably, such behavior will frustrate the Israelis to action and could force Obama to finally make tough decisions.
The options on Obama’s plate are hard. Sanctions without Russian and Chinese cooperation will be difficult. The much talked about gasoline embargo won’t work because Russia is prepared to make-up any Iranian shortfalls via rail resupply from under worked Russian refineries and besides, Venezuela signed a pact in Sept. to ship 20,000 barrels of gasoline to Iran beginning in Oct. and China recently increased its gasoline shipments to Iran by one-third to improve its leverage with the West.
Moscow and Beijing are not likely to abandon their economic and strategic ties with Iran to support sanctions. Their price for cooperation will be too high. Russia could seek the West’s disengagement from Eurasia and China might insist America back away from supporting Taiwan, China’s Achilles heel.
A military strike option depends on the quality of intelligence, not our strong suit. At best, our bombs could set the regime’s atomic program back a few years. Predictably, the regime would respond to a strike with damaging blows on our forces in Iraq and possibly Afghanistan, it might seek to close the Strait of Hormuz which would disrupt the global economy by cutting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf and it might attack Israel with missiles and Hizbullah terrorists.
Possibly a better option or one done in conjunction with a military strike would be to encourage internal dissent. We saw massive demonstrations after the tainted presidential election in June which needs to be encouraged.
The U.S. should aggressively support Iranian dissent and insurgents. We could work with regional partners to provide sanctuary for dissenters and insurgents, money, broadcast anti-regime messages into Iran and arms. Tehran’s political and religious leaders are already divided and paranoid so ratcheting up dissent and insurgent attacks might push them into chaos.
Finally, the White House and Congress must understand the regime’s motivation. Iran’s leaders are driven by radical theology. Last month at the U.N., Ahmadinejad outlined his Shia Islamic eschatology regarding the coming messiah, who returns to Earth to rule the world under Islam in the battle against the infidels. Ahmadinejad believes he can hasten the messiah’s return through instigating war. In fact, in an NBC News interview with Ann Curry two weeks ago, Ahmadinejad claimed he’s in direct communications with this Islamic messiah.
Tehran will use its success from the recent talks to divide the P-5+1 in order to defeat their actions. This strategy could give Iran many months to continue its secret atomic weapons work. Inevitably, much as we saw with North Korea, Tehran will eventually end the charade, kick the inspectors out, call off talks and test an atomic weapon. Then look for Ahmadinejad’s war that hastens the return of his Islamic messiah.