In June 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency, verifying claims made by Iranian exiles the previous summer, declared the Islamic Republic of Iran in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In September 2003, the Bush administration called for Iran's referral to the UN Security Council, but agreed to defer to the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the UK), who sought to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program by offering various economic and political concessions. In December 2003, Iran signed an agreement with the EU-3 to suspend uranium enrichment; in June 2004 Iran was caught in violation of that agreement by the IAEA. In November 2004, the EU-3 and Iran resumed negotiations, which led to an agreement with Iran promising again to suspend enrichment. Then Iran reneged and threatened to withdraw from the talks unless the EU-3 made various concessions. They made those concessions. In January 2006, Iran broke the UN seals at its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz; the EU-3 suspended negotiations and recommended the matter be referred to the Security Council. Last month the IAEA concluded it would finally refer the matter to the Security Council. The Security Council set a deadline of last Friday for Iran to freeze nuclear enrichment; the IAEA reported that day that Iran was not complying.
President Bush responded to the report in part by saying that "diplomacy is just beginning."
It could not be clearer that the Bush administration is loath to resort to military action against Iran until it is absolutely, positively, the only option remaining. The good news is that there's still time to stall: President Ahmadinejad's boasts notwithstanding, Iran is years away from building a nuclear warhead. One advantage to the EU-3's diplomatic push is that it has demonstrated that our intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program is pretty good; if the mullahs had major undiscovered facilities secretly producing fissionable material somewhere, or even a serious prospect of buying such material in sufficient quantities, their behavior at the negotiating table would make no sense.
While we're stalling, there are some things we can do to encourage the regime change that must be the goal of U.S. policy toward Iran. The UN Security Council will meet this week to discuss sanctions. The problem is that the Russians and Chinese are sure to veto any regime of economic sanctions with sufficient bite to intimidate Tehran. But there just might be a shot at targeted sanctions to symbolically emphasize the isolating effect of Iranian belligerence. Bans on international sporting competition heavily influenced public opinion in both Serbia and South Africa, and keeping Iran out of the World Cup this summer would drive home to soccer fans in the Islamic Republic which way their leaders are steering their country.
We can also encourage regime change with a mixture of overt and covert campaign to support anti-regime elements within Iran. The $75 million that Secretary Rice has requested from Congress to encourage democracy in Iran is a good first step, but only a first step.
But we should be wary of overestimating the odds of regime change from within preceding the Islamic Republic's completion of nuclear arms. And once the mullahs have the bomb, they will have a free hand to ramp up violent repression of their internal opposition without fear of triggering intervention from without. We can't afford to allow a regime as dangerous as Iran's go nuclear. Aerial bombardment of Iran's nuclear facilities is a risky proposition; such a campaign could cause advantageous political convulsions within Iran, but could also lead to escalation that ultimately necessitates a ground invasion. It is, however, a risky proposition that we must prepare for in the coming years, for it is clearly less risky than relying on classical nuclear deterrence against men who believe they have a holy duty to kill us.
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