Thursday, June 29, 2006

Iran: Time Running Out

Kenneth R. Timmerman,
When Condoleeza Rice meets with G-8 foreign ministers in Moscow today, one item must be at the very top of her agenda: showing Iran that the United States and its partners means business... She must insist that her partners agree to send a clear message to Tehran, telling them they have until the following Monday, July 3, to answer the U.S.-backed offer.

The message to Tehran’s leaders should go something like this. READ MORE

You have now had a full month to respond to a clear-cut, yes-no proposition concerning your nuclear program and the future of your relations with the international community.

You will not succeed in buying more time. If you do not respond with an unequivocal yes (not yes, but...) by this coming Monday, July 3, then we will return to the UN Security Council later that week to vote an initial resolution calling for sanctions on your country.

That first resolution will carry with it another deadline, July 14. By that date, you will be required to carry out all of the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These include: a verifiable suspension of all uranium enrichment and reprocessing programs, full transparency at all nuclear facilities, access to program directors, and complete documentation on weaponization activities, including documents acquired through the A.Q. Khan network.

If you fail to meet the IAEA requirements by midnight, New York time, on July 14, the UN Security Council will meet the next day to vote a second resolution that will make mandatory against your country the political, consular, commercial and financial sanctions described in the first resolution.

Without tough words such as these, the Iranians win. It’s as simple as that. Because time is not on our side.

So far, the Iranians have responded to the U.S.-backed offer of nuclear talks in any number of ways. They have laughed. They have thumbed their noses. They have beaten their chests.

The very day that European diplomatic envoy Javier Solana presented the offer in Tehran, the Iranians informed the IAEA that they were launching a new campaign of uranium enrichment.

Since then, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly has thumbed his nose, pretending that something about the choice outlined by Condoleeza Rice (which I described in these pages two weeks ago) required such intense discussion in Tehran that he would be unable of providing an answer until August 22.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated yet again that Iran would not accept the offer as it is currently phrased, but would agree to talks with the United States and the great powers on condition that they recognize Iran’s “right” to nuclear technology.

These are classic stalling tactics.

It should be clear by now that Iran is trying to run out the clock, delaying its answer to the U.S.-backed offer until it has ironed out the kinks of its centrifuge enrichment program so it will be able to take it underground should the West impose sanctions later on.

Iran is trying to slow down the diplomacy while they race forward with the technology,” Israeli officials argued during briefings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last week. “They want to cross the technology threshold before the international community can stop them.”

Key to success, in Iran’s view, is dragging out its response to the Western offer until after the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg on July 15. Why? Because Russian president Vladimir Putin desperately wants a successful summit, and is willing to make some concessions to the United States and its partners to keep the Iran issue from blowing up in his face.

But once the summit is over, that leverage is gone. And the Iranians know it full well.

The United States and its partners simply cannot afford to allow these deadlines to pass without acting. It is not enough to sit down with Iran whenever they are ready to talk, as President Bush said irritably in Vienna last week on hearing of Ahmadinejad’s stalling tactic.

It is essentially that the United States and its partners make Iran understand that it will pay a price for stalling, and that stalling amounts to a rejection of the yes-no offer announced by Condi on May 31.

Israel believes the Iranians are just months from crossing the “technological threshold,” giving them mastery over the entire uranium enrichment process.

Once they reach that point, Iran can simply take its program “into the basements,” officials said. And once that happens, neither Israel nor the United States will be able to do much about it, short of military action.

Israeli officials made clear they had “no confidence” they would be able to locate clandestine enrichment sites. Unchecked by the G-8 over the next fifteen days, Iran could be building bombs in the basement within three years at most, the Israelis believe. They base that estimate on the known parameters of Iran’s enrichment program as known to the IAEA, not on any clandestine or parallel program.

If Iran is operating clandestine enrichment sites, it could be building bombs as early as next year, some Israeli analysts believe.

Former Mossad Director of Intelligence Uzi Arad said he believed the U.S.-backed offer was cobbled together prematurely, and only should have been made after a concerted, international effort was made to impress upon Iran the costs it would incur by refusing the nuclear deal.

Had there been economic, diplomatic and other sanctions in place and a credible military option looming in the air, there is a great likelihood that Iran would have contemplated that threat and accepted the offer,” he said.

But without sanctions in place, Iran was likely to rebuff the offer, “or fool around with it in such way as to diminish the credibility” of any resulting deal, he said.

It’s still not too late to show Iran that the offer is serious – and so is the threat of sanctions.

But time is quickly running out.