Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Iran: Coming Clean and Buying Time

Seemingly confident that Washington will not immediately exercise the military option, Tehran is trying to avoid having to backpedal on its declared right to enrich uranium and to buy time to deal with the situations in Iraq and the Levant. Several Iranian officials have acknowledged for the first time that Iran has had a secret nuclear program and has concealed nuclear facilities in the country. Iran is signaling to the United States that, short of an all-out assault against its nuclear sites, there is no way that it can be deterred from enriching uranium.

Analysis read more

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, on Croatian television March 8, threatened to break off talks with the EU3 if Iran was pressured to give up its right to "master nuclear technology." Khatami's remark comes a day after Ali Akbar Salehi, nuclear affairs adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, acknowledged the existence of an underground nuclear facility that contained centrifuges used for the enrichment of uranium. The facility, at Natanz in central Iran, was constructed below the surface to protect against U.S. or Israeli airstrikes. This admission followed another by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a two-time former president and the current head of the Expediency Council, Iran's highest political arbitration body, that Iran had a secret but peaceful nuclear program prior to 2002. He said the program was necessary because of sanctions against Iran that prevented the Islamic republic from acquiring equipment needed for developing a nuclear program.

These statements, which validate U.S. concerns that Iran has secretly been trying to develop nuclear weapons, are Iran's way of trying to counter international pressure to stop enriching uranium. By coming forth and admitting it has had a clandestine program with underground facilities -- although insisting that it was civilian in nature -- and that it is not ready to accept a permanent freeze on nuclear activities, Iran is signaling that, short of a full-scale attack against its nuclear facilities, there is no way it can be thwarted from enriching uranium. Tehran hopes to reach a settlement whereby it can openly carry out its nuclear activities under the legitimacy of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and additional protocols it has signed since October 2003 (the NPT allows member states to pursue nonmilitary nuclear activities).

On the surface it appears that the statements from Tehran are an admission of guilt, which could strengthen the hand of the Bush administration as it pushes for tougher action against the clerical regime. Given that the ayatollahs, despite their ideological proclivities, are not irrational geopolitical actors, these statements likely were issued for a specific purpose. Negotiations with the EU3 are slowly moving to a point where Iran has to decide whether to accept economic incentives in exchange for a complete cessation of all activities related to uranium enrichment. This quid pro quo is not acceptable to the Iranians, and they have made this clear on several recent occasions.

Iran also can choose to pull out of the talks, though such a move would make it more vulnerable to international action. More important, it also would prevent Iran from gaining the recognition and security guarantees it is seeking from the United States. Iranians have threatened several times to pull out of the talks, moves that have been dismissed as mere posturing. In reality, Tehran wants to remain engaged with the international community -- it just does not want to be handicapped by this desire and forced to accept harsh conditions.

Therefore, the way out for the Iranians is to try and steer the negotiations in such a way that Iran is not boxed in and the opposing side has to choose between two difficult options.

Iran is signaling the West that it can either cut a deal allowing Tehran to openly carry out its nuclear activities after assuring the world of their peaceful purposes or it will have to wage a full-scale war against the regime to deny it the ability to enrich uranium.

This is where Tehran is displaying a great degree of confidence that, considering the situation in the Middle East, the United States and Israel are not in a position to launch an attack against Tehran's nuclear assets. Contributing to this confidence are recent statements by Bush administration officials that the West has just embarked on the diplomatic route to dealing with Iran and that military action -- though not off the table -- is not imminent. The Iranians also are not worried about the probability of U.N. Security Council sanctions; many major states have bilateral economic relations with Iran, which would complicate the passage of any resolution. While this may not be part of the Iranian perception of the situation, surgical strikes against its key facilities to push back its nuclear program a few years is a real possibility.

It remains to be seen whether the Iranians truly have been successful in tying the hands of the West. What is clear, though, is that they have bought time to focus on the new political dynamics of Iraq and the Levant, dynamics that seem to be working against the interests of Tehran. Or at least they think they have.