Still Not Blinking
Iran spurns a nuclear compromise, as its president denies the HolocaustThe Economist is beginning to understand the problem of the Iranian regime, but still appears to hold out hope that Rafsanjani will come to the rescue, a misplaced hope.
The window for a negotiated way out of the impasse over Iran's nuclear intentions, said European leaders diplomatically last week, “will not remain open indefinitely”. Iran seems bent on slamming it shut. Meanwhile, remarks by its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, suggesting the Holocaust was a “myth” and calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and reconstituted somewhere in Europe or America, have heightened concern about Iran's nuclear plans, as perhaps they were meant to. Without some unexpected breakthrough, Iran's case may soon be put before the UN's Security Council. READ MORE
On December 21st, officials from Britain, France and Germany were to meet their Iranian counterparts to explore ways to restart negotiations. These were broken off by Iran in August when it resumed production of uranium gas. It has since said it intends to enrich the gas in centrifuge machines (for reactor fuel, it insists; for bombs, is the suspicion) that it had been assembling at a pilot plant at Natanz before its covert nuclear activities were uncovered three years ago.
In an effort to break the impasse and to give more time for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, to learn more from Iran, Russia had been offering to enrich the gas Iran produces on its behalf. But Iran appears to have spurned that offer, instead inviting America to help construct new nuclear reactors in the country to allay its suspicions.
Now even the IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei, recent Nobel peace laureate and a notoriously patient man where Iran is concerned, suggests the world's patience is running out. The Israelis, straining to sound cool while the European trio does the talking, say that, if Iran restarts its centrifuge work, it could have all the skills needed to make fissile material in a matter of months.
So is Iran making bombs, or just trying to keep the option open? Mr ElBaradei points out that his inspectors have no mandate to search for other elements of a weapons programme, only tell-tale samples of uranium or plutonium (and in Iran some of both materials are still not fully explained). But to others, the jigsaw pieces are already forming a troubling picture.
Iran admits that blackmarket suppliers of its centrifuge equipment also offered it technology for shaping the fissile core of a bomb: it had the documents, but claims it never used them. America has shown Russia, China and others excerpts from a cache of computer files appearing to show work by Iranian technicians to shape a missile cone capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran has long worked closely with North Korea, among others, on a version of its nuclear-capable Nodong missile (also bought by Pakistan) with a range of 1,200km (750 miles). There are worries that the two are collaborating on longer-range Taepodong missiles. Iran is also known to have bought some nuclear-capable cruise missiles from Ukraine. And a North Korean defector alleges that the world's champion tunneller has helped Iran hide its weapons work underground.
So Iran seems determined to crack on, whatever the world thinks. In September the IAEA's 35-nation board declared it “in non-compliance” with its anti-nuclear commitments, and at some point is duty-bound to refer that to the Security Council. Iran still hopes that lucrative energy deals with Russia and China will buy their protection from UN sanctions. The Europeans had hoped to avoid referral too, since UN action is by no means certain, but they now have little option. The only question is whether they can win broad IAEA backing, or whether they and the Americans must do the referring themselves.
And a helpful president
Meanwhile, Mr Ahmadinejad continues to make sulphurous statements that jangle the nerves even of those who believe that Iran's nuclear dabbling is peaceful or bluff. One explanation for his remarks is that he needs to bolster his rapport with the least sophisticated members of his electorate—last week's Holocaust denial was made in the remote south-eastern province of Baluchistan-Sistan—to protect himself from opponents in the intrigue-filled capital.
In any event, Mr Ahmadinejad will take some quieting. He feels he has a bigger mission: to reject the West's “frail civilisation” and instead, with Iran's bumper oil revenues, build a “model Islamic” country. To this end, his cabinet approved big handouts in the south-eastern provinces, which have many poor Sunnis, thus showing that he does not regard Iran's Shia majority as his only constituency of support.
Among Iran's competing elites, however, he may enjoy the wholehearted support only of the hardline Revolutionary Guard—the same institution that America and its allies suspect of using a civilian nuclear programme as cover to build a bomb. The Guard wields much influence on Iran's behalf in next-door Iraq, and could stir up more trouble there for America if it were ever to threaten to clobber Iran's nuclear facilities. And it is hard for Mr Ahmadinejad's numerous opponents, whether in parliament or among the clerical elite, to slap him down publicly merely for echoing the old revolutionary orthodoxy.
He may not expect his Israel-deleting musings to be acted upon. In the same speech, he reiterated the urging of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for a referendum, with the participation of all Palestinian refugees, to determine the status of the current Israeli state. Until then, as Mr Khamenei made clear when he recently received the political leader of Hamas, the Palestinians' main Islamist group, Iran will go on supporting Palestinian violence against Israel. And Hamas has pledged, in return, to retaliate on Iran's behalf if Israel strikes the Islamic Republic.
Scepticism of the intent behind Mr Ahmadinejad's rhetorical fire, combined with the unchallenged authority in foreign affairs of Mr Khamenei, may explain why reactions in Tehran to the president's remarks have been surprisingly mute. For all that, astute Iranians are sadly aware that the president's words can only reduce the already low chances of success in nuclear talks between Iran and the European trio. But Mr Ahmadinejad may not care; his desire to champion “the culture and civilisation of Islam” may come first.