Iran's threats to restart its nuclear development program and pull out of European-led talks is forcing the Bush administration to consider what to do next if diplomatic efforts collapse.
The European Union and Iran scheduled what Tehran billed as "an emergency summit" for Monday to try and break the deadlock in the talks, which are aimed at convincing Iran to abandon efforts to restart the nuclear activities it suspended late last year.
But the Bush administration, whose support for the EU's diplomatic approach was never more than lukewarm, is now struggling to decide where U.S. policy should go if Iran chooses, as it has threatened several times this week, to end its voluntary moratorium on uranium enrichment.
Immediate options range from diplomatic moves like the pursuit of economic sanctions through the U.N. Security Council, to more aggressive tactics like funneling support to armed groups opposed to Iran’s clerical government, according to a State Department official who requested anonymity.
But, the source said, "we're not sure where this issue would go in the Security Council, and so other things are also on the table."
The lack of solid, viable options is one reason the Bush administration had been so patient with the stalled European diplomatic initiative, which began with a November 2004 voluntary moratorium by Iran on uranium enrichment activities and was meant to lead to an agreement trading western aid and diplomatic concessions for a permanent, verifiable halt.
At the U.N., for instance, it remains unclear whether the Europeans would support a call for economic sanctions against Tehran in the Security Council, or if Russia or China would block such a move. Russia has its own lucrative nuclear relationship with Tehran, legally supplying fuel for an Iranian reactor project monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Other diplomatic moves might include an increase in funds for U.S.-backed Persian language broadcasting, pressure on Iran through Iraq's U.S.-allied government or other friends of the United States in the region.
Another approach, led by an administration ally in Congress, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., is contained in a bill that would tighten sanctions and prevent the U.S. from offering incentives to Iran, as it did recently by approving the sale of parts Iran wanted for its aging fleet of Boeing airliners. The House bill is largely symbolic at this point, but reflects unhappiness on the Republican Right with the Bush administration's willingness to let the EU talks drag on.
More forceful options also exist. The United States could begin funneling support to armed groups opposed to Iran’s clerics like the controversial Mujahedin al-Khalq or MEK, which Ros-Lehtinen and other members of Congress support.
The president could, of course, also order American air strikes on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. According to military analyst William R. Arkin, plans for such a strike already exist. Dubbed “CONPLAN 8022,” and described in Arkin's book "Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs, and Operations in the 9/11 World," the military option calls for pin-point bombings of selected targets, along with destruction of key communications and energy facilities in the vicinity.
"Iran's nuclear program has been dispersed and hidden over a period of decades, and there's simply no magic bullet with regard to military moves," says David Phillips, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who until recently was an advisor to the State Department on the region. "Senior military commanders say this often, though of course they plan for contingencies. But the fact is, the window of opportunity to halt Iran's program with pin-point strikes closed some time ago."
The Israeli card
“There is just no good military option of the kind Israel chose when it attacked and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in 1981,” says Judith Yaphe, a senior fellow at the Pentagon’s National Defense University who spent 20 as a CIA Middle Eastern analyst. “The Iranians learned from that and they’ve dispersed their facilities all over the country, in underground bunkers and in populated areas.”
For that same reason, Yaphe says, talk of “letting the Israelis do it” is misguided.
“Some Israelis will tell you, ‘It doesn’t matter if we don’t get everything, all we have to do is delay Iran until we think of something else,’” Yaphe says. “But they certainly don’t want to be in a position where they feel they have to act.”
In recent days, Iran’s conduct has been the subject of front page headlines in Israel, where across the political spectrum there is broad agreement that a nuclear-armed Iran is something that Israel could not take lying down.
“By its very existence, the Iranian threat justifies Israeli preparations to frustrate it,” an editorial in the normally dovish Ha'aretz daily said Monday. “As far as tactics are concerned, the government's approach is correct -- not to lead the global efforts to thwart the Iranian threat.”
Charges of deception
The crux of the issue is Iran’s insistence that it has every right to enrich uranium for use in electricity generating nuclear power plants. Indeed, such activity is legal under the terms of the nuclear proliferation treaty, and many nations not part of the “nuclear weapons club” regularly do so to provide power for light water reactors. Iran claims that its nuclear activity is strictly aimed at producing nuclear energy for its domestic market.
But the outside world is doubtful. Uranium enriched at low levels is the key component for producing energy at certain kinds of nuclear power plants, but highly enriched uranium is suitable for a nuclear weapon.
The International Nuclear Energy Agency, which conducts inspections of facilities in countries that are signatories to the nuclear treaty -- like Iran -- found in 2003 disparities in what Tehran claimed it was doing and what was really going on.
Some American officials, including Stephen G. Rademaker, assistant secretary of state for arms control, have been more frank in their assessment: “Iran has made clear its determination to retain the nuclear infrastructure it secretly built in violation of its NPT safeguards obligations,” Rademaker said when the nuclear review conference opened earlier this month. He also said that Iran “is continuing to develop its nuclear capabilities around the margins of the suspension it agreed to last November, for example, by continuing construction of the heavy water reactor at Arak, along with supporting infrastructure.”
Specific allegations like that, usually from the United States but also from Israel and Iranian dissident groups, are features of the Iran nuclear debate. In 2003, for instance, intelligence on the Arak site and another nuclear facility at Natanz were presented to the IAEA and subsequent inspections confirmed that Iran was doing work it had expressly denied in the past.
Since then, the EU-led effort to win Iran over with economic inducements has staggered along with little to show in the way of progress. The current NPT conference has been typical. The conference opened with pledges of cooperation. But in the past week Iranian statements have veered from “let’s make a deal” to outright hostility. Last week, for instance, Tehran confirmed for the first time it had converted 37 tons of raw uranium into gas, a key step ahead of enrichment. At mid-week, Iran said a deal was still possible, but on Sunday its foreign minister, Hamid-Reza Asefi, said: “The coming days will be the last chance for the Europeans. With or without an agreement, we will restart our activities.”
Some of this inconsistency could be blamed on the fact that Iran is in the final weeks of a presidential election being conducted in a highly charged atmosphere of Iranian nationalism. But Yaphe and others suggest that the West underestimates the extent to which average Iranians, even those who would like to see the country open up and liberalize, understand that Iran may be a country under threat if it foregoes nuclear weapons development. With nuclear-armed India and Pakistan to the west, large American troop deployments on its borders with Afghanistan and Iraq, and a key American ally in Turkey to the north, Iran feels isolated and threatened.
“Iran wants intangible things – respectability, recognition, legitimacy,” says Yaphe. And in a world where the United States openly enshrined “preemptive” force as its national security doctrine, “they do see nuclear weapons, I think, as fitting into their defensive strategy.”
Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's former ambassador to the U.N's nuclear agency, argues that Iran’s experience during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s explains its secretive and self-reliant approach to nuclear issues. For much of that war, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a western ally, with access to a broad range of technology. At the same time Iran was under tight sanctions, dubbed an international pariah for its 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy.
"It is because of the sanctions, the international sanctions," Salehi told the BBC earlier this month. "I mean engage with Iran and see how Iran behaves."
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