Thursday, April 13, 2006

Iran's Nuclear Announcement

Iran declared on Tuesday that it has "joined the club of nuclear countries." The announcement, which came at a formal ceremony in the northeastern city of Mashad, was delivered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said Iran had enriched uranium at a research and development level, using 164 centrifuges. Ahmadinejad also said Iran eventually would reach full industrial-scale enrichment capability, while remaining within international legal parameters.

The announcement was delivered with ultimate fanfare: The ceremony in Mashad -- broadcast live by CNN -- was attended by Iran's senior political, clerical and military leaders, and performers entertained spectators with dance and song. A large video screen behind the podium projected images of Iranian scientists at work in various nuclear facilities throughout the country.

Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, who is also the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, spoke at the event as well, saying Iran had reached the nuclear milestone April 10, when the pilot centrifuge plant in Natanz enriched uranium to 3.5 percent purity.

From a technical standpoint, this development means little. But what is intriguing is the fact that the Iranians went out of their way to let the world know they had reached this level of achievement. Considering that such progress heightens the risk of airstrikes against nuclear facilities, this would not appear to be a rational move by Tehran. Yet, since that is the move that was made, the question is what the Iranians hoped to achieve.

The answer, as is so often the case, is rooted in the things that were not said. READ MORE

First, consider the timing of the announcement: It was delivered on the anniversary of the Prophet Mohammed's birthday. That is unlikely to be an accident, since Iran has been seeking to emphasize its credentials as a leader of the Muslim world. Perhaps even more to the point, however, it came a day before Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was due to arrive in Tehran for talks on ending the nuclear standoff. This also was noted in public remarks: Senior statesman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said ElBaradei "faces new circumstances" in light of the scientific breakthrough.

Then there is the U.S. response. It came in a mild statement by White House press secretary Scott McClellan -- who said merely that the Iranians are moving in the wrong direction. In other words, Washington did not consider Iran's "achievement moment" as warranting anything more than another set of verbal warnings.

The Iranians were not certain about how the Bush administration would respond to its "nuclear club" membership, but they clearly were confident they wouldn't get bombed for it. Both parties are aware that Tehran's claims on Tuesday were not the signal that Iran had crossed the nuclear Rubicon. Under any circumstances, anyone serious about developing nuclear technology does not go about it by waving a flag, singing and dancing or otherwise calling attention to themselves on live television.

Instead, discerning Iran's real objective is best done by examining other factors.

We note that Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said Tuesday that Iran - which recently concluded weeklong military exercises in the Persian Gulf -- is ready to ink a nonaggression pact with other countries in the region and to conduct "a joint military exercise with regional countries" as well.

Through their actions in the past few weeks -- culminating in Tuesday's provocative assertion -- the Iranians clearly have been trying to engender a sense of crisis in an effort to press Washington hard. A final settlement over Iraq is in the making, but the situation within the Iraqi Shiite community and the position of Shiite political groups in Baghdad are less than wonderful from Iran's point of view. The public talks between Washington and Tehran have been put on hold until after a full-term Iraqi government has been established. And meanwhile, the Arab states of the region have been moving to counter the growth of Iranian influence.

Tuesday's ceremony and public announcement were designed to send signals to several different audiences. The most important message, however, was probably the least obvious one: Tehran wants the Iraq issue settled in a way that is in keeping with Iranian national interests. That message, we feel sure, has been received in Washington.