Monday, May 22, 2006

Iranian Maneuvers

The Iranians have rejected a European proposal to resolve the nuclear crisis. The Europeans were offering light-water technology that would provide Iran with civilian nuclear power, but would be impractical for the development of nuclear weapons. In return, the Iranians would give up their current nuclear development program.

The European proposal would seem reasonable on the surface. If the Iranians are actually developing nuclear technology for civilian purposes, as they say, the European offer would give them a leg up in their program. They would only be giving up the possibility of building weapons, which wouldn't mean much if they weren't planning to build them. The ever-reasonable Europeans got hit by a more complex Iranian logic.

It is interesting to consider the nature of the Iranian response. They not only rejected the European proposal -- they ridiculed it. During a speech in the city of Arak, the location of Iran's heavy-water facility, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, "Do you think you are dealing with a 4-year-old child to whom you can give some walnuts and chocolates and get gold in return?" He also said, "They say they want to offer us incentives. We tell them: Keep the incentives as a gift for yourself. We have no hope of anything good from you." And, "When did we reach a begging hand to you for you to think that with incentives you can withhold our rights to scientific progress? We don't have a problem for you to solve." READ MORE

It is interesting to watch Tehran maneuver. On the surface, the Iranians are hurting themselves. They do not yet have a deliverable weapon. They are in the most vulnerable period -- the time between the discovery of a nation's nuclear program and the creation of a deterrent capability. Others are motivated to stop them from developing nuclear weapons and don't have to be afraid of the response. The major threat to Iran's interest would be a pre-emptive U.S. strike against their facilities.

One of the ways to forestall a U.S. attack is by splitting the Europeans from the Americans and engaging in prolonged negotiations. If Tehran had accepted the European proposal in principle, it could have bought months -- clarifying details -- before the Europeans would have caught on to the delaying tactics. The French and the Germans do not want the Americans striking at Iran. The United States does not have the appetite for another war without European support. Therefore, logic would dictate that the Iranians have chosen the worst course for themselves. They have embarrassed the Europeans, driving them closer to the Americans -- and therefore increased, to some extent, the danger of a U.S. strike, which would end their hopes of a nuclear capability for a while. Why not humor the Europeans who badly wanted to be humored?

One answer, which is domestic politics, doesn't hold water.

Ahmadinejad does not have to secure his more extreme flank. He is the extreme flank. There is no domestic political reason that would force him to be confrontational with the Europeans. He is under no pressure to show his radical credentials. Nor is Ahmadinejad operating alone. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is watching his every move and could block him if he went out of control. What was voiced on Wednesday is not Ahmadinejad's policy; it is Iranian policy. Nor do we believe that Ahmadinejad feels secure because he already has the bomb. The bomb would have no deterrent value if the Americans didn't know it existed. And if the Iranians had it, they would demonstrate it in order for it to have value. This is, therefore, a calculated and risky move.

For Iran, the only chip on the table worth this kind of risk is Iraq. Obviously, the formation of the Iraqi government is moving to its end state, and equally obviously, the Iranians have a deep interest in that government and the future of U.S. forces in Iraq. The only way Tehran's moves on Wednesday make sense is in the context of those negotiations. Iran knows the United States has no appetite for either a war with Iran or an Iranian nuclear capability. The United States does not want to strike Iran, but will if it absolutely must. The Iranians are creating a situation in which a strike is almost a must -- to see if they can get the United States to trade the nuclear program for substantial concessions elsewhere. And they must do this before the Iraqi government locks into place.

This is a theme we have struck before. But as we look at the way the European proposal was rejected, it seems obvious that Ahmadinejad is forcing a confrontation that he could easily put off for quite a while. The Iranians are too smart to do this frivolously. So the question is why they are doing it. The answer that keeps coming up is Iraq.