Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Ayatollah's Answer

The Wall Street Journal:
Two months ago the U.N. Security Council offered Iran a choice: Stop enriching uranium in violation of its treaty agreements, and the world would negotiate better diplomatic and commercial relations. Keep enriching the fuel for nuclear weapons, however, and face isolation and sanctions. Tehran's rulers have now given their answer: They won't stop enriching uranium, but they're happy to keep talking about it.

Yesterday, the Bush Administration said it is still studying the Iranian proposal but that the reply "falls short of the conditions set by the Security Council." You can say that again. After three years of Iranian stonewalling since their nuclear deception was discovered, the June resolution was deliberately written to make an end to enrichment a first-order obligation.

The carrots are supposed to follow, not precede, Iran's promise not to take further steps toward becoming a nuclear power. Iran's reply looks like a calculated attempt to conquer the Security Council by dividing its members with the promise that more talk might some day, down the road, in return for who knows what, lead Iran to stop going nuclear. READ MORE

And already yesterday, the mullahs' strategy was paying dividends as Russia and China took the bait and urged further negotiations. These countries have their oil or nuclear energy deals with Tehran, and they don't seem to worry all that much about Islamic radicals getting the bomb. Perhaps they figure that's America's problem, or Israel's, though how an Islamic regime with a nuclear arsenal helps Russian or Chinese interests is a mystery.

So Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will have a difficult time mobilizing the world to contain the growing Iranian threat. She sold the idea of offering direct U.S. talks to the mullahs in return for their cooperation on uranium as a way to keep the coalition together. And it worked for that one U.N. resolution. But now that the offer has been rejected so slickly by Tehran, we'll see if she's been out-maneuvered by the Ayatollah Khamenei.

The obvious next diplomatic step is to show Iran that the world meant what it said by following through with the toughest achievable sanctions. A myth has developed in some circles that there are "no good options" available to pressure Iran, but that's more excuse than analysis. Iran's mullahs are unpopular at home and their citizens will notice if they are declared a global pariah state. Sanctions on travel by Iran's government officials, diplomats and sports teams may be largely symbolic, but such symbolism will not be missed on the Persian street.

Iran is also vulnerable economically. Sanctions on banks that deal with Iran can limit the regime's access to global credit markets for trade and other financing. Despite its oil exports, Iran also imports some 40% of its refined gasoline. A ban on selling gasoline to Iran would surely lead to gas lines and other shortages there, with possible domestic political repercussions. And it is domestic discontent that the mullahs rightly fear the most.

The worry in the West is that Iran would respond to a gasoline embargo by playing its oil card in retaliation, withholding its supplies and sending world oil prices perhaps to $100 a barrel. But the mullahs can't eat oil. Amid other economic sanctions, they would need their income from oil sales more than ever. They are also watching closely to see if the world is serious when it says it won't allow them to go nuclear, and they know better than anyone that gasoline imports are their biggest political danger. They'll know a wrist slap from a serious policy.

Anyone who still thinks a nuclear-armed Iran won't pose a serious, and perhaps mortal, threat ought to consult this week's bipartisan staff report from the House Intelligence Committee. Drawing on open-source information and mindful of classified background, the report lays out the history of Iranian nuclear deception and its attempts to promote trouble throughout the Middle East. It notes that "Iran probably has an offensive biological weapons program." And it discusses in detail Iran's support for Hezbollah and other terror groups, as well as its continuing support for insurgents who are killing Americans in Iraq.

"A nuclear-armed Iran would likely embolden the leadership in Tehran to advance its aggressive ambitions in and outside of the region, both directly and through the terrorists it supports--ambitions that gravely threaten the stability and the security of U.S. friends and allies," says the House Intelligence report. With a nuclear arsenal that they felt protected them from retaliation, the mullahs would also be more likely to use conventional military force in the Middle East. The domino effect as Turkey, Egypt and the Saudis sought their own nuclear deterrent would also not be "stabilizing," to cite the highest value of our Middle Eastern "realists." And don't forget President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's vow that "Israel must be wiped off the map."

The most dismaying part of the House report may be its admission that there are huge gaps in U.S. intelligence about Iran and its weapons programs. That was also the conclusion of the Robb-Silberman report on intelligence last year, and the House Committee also recommends that U.S. spooks devote far more resources and attention to Iran as a strategic threat.

No one wants a military confrontation with Iran, but those who want to avoid one have an obligation to show the mullahs that continuing on their current path will lead to isolation, economic suffering and worse. A U.N. Security Council that passes resolutions it refuses to enforce is itself a threat to global security.