After the revelation of Iran's previously secret uranium-enrichment near facility Qom, home to the country's clerical elite, Barack Obama, flanked by Gordon Brown and the hawkish Nicolas Sarkozy, eloquently condemned Iran for its contemptuous disregard for international law. The visuals were powerful: while the Bush administration had been condemned for its unilateralism, here was President Obama standing with the leaders of America's allies, all of them offering a single forceful message. It didn't hurt that Obama towered over the perpetually hunched-over British prime minister and the charmingly elfin French president. This display followed Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's odd statement earlier that week that "sanctions are seldom productive but they are sometimes inevitable," a sign that Russia might be willing to exert pressure on Iran—long one of the most enthusiastic consumers of high-tech Russian military hardware.
While the Iranians will hand over low-enriched nuclear fuel they've said they have, they're not about to give up the nuclear they haven't said they have. Get it?
This week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has agreed to transfer most of his country's acknowledged low-enriched nuclear fuel out of the country for purposes of further enrichment, and Iranian negotiators have signaled a willingness to engage in further talks. All of this sounds like good news, and it is. Unfortunately, it is also extremely good news for Iran and Ahmadinejad, who has managed to buy still more time to build his weapons program.
There's little doubt that the Qom facility is just part of a vast network of secret nuclear facilities that the Iranians have been building for years to evade inspectors. It solves the "puzzle" of why the Iranians haven't been able to account for large amounts of uranium from one of their mines. Imagine a conversation with Iranian nuclear officials offer the missing uranium: "Oh, well, we use it as part of a traditional Persian headache remedy." While international inspectors sought full access to Iran's Potemkin nuclear program, the Iranians, having learned the lesson of Iraq's Osirak facility, destroyed by an Israeli air attack in 1981, have created a hardened weapons program that will be difficult if not impossible to destroy.
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• Gary Sick: Real Progress with Iran So while the Iranians will hand over low-enriched nuclear fuel they've said they have, they're not about to give up the nuclear they haven't said they have. Get it? As for the further talks, the United States wants to talk about ending Iran's nuclear program. The Iranians want to talk about… virtually everything else, ranging from "creating a world filled with spirituality, friendship, prosperity, wellness, and security" to "the management and fair use of space" to, yes, abolishing all the world's nuclear weapons. Suffice it to say, this is a fairly broad agenda. Indeed, it is so broad that one wonders if the Iranians are taking this process as seriously as we'd like to think.
The rumor is that Iran "revealed" the Qom facility after discovering the Western intelligence officials had learned of its existence, and that Sarkozy was planning on making a dramatic announcement at the United Nations General Assembly. But of course the Iranians didn't invite U.N. inspectors to drop by immediately after making the announcement. When Iranian nuclear officials say that they need time—weeks if not months—before inspectors can arrive, their motivation could be the fastidiousness of gracious hosts, e.g., they want to be sure the pillows are fluffed and that various Iranian delicacies are seasoned to perfection. Or they could be hard at work scrubbing the enrichment facility of any incriminating evidence that goes beyond the massively incriminating evidence that they built it in the first place. One gets the uncomfortable sense that the United States is getting hustled, just as we were hustled by North Korea.
Back when we started negotiating with the North Koreans over their nuclear program, we were convinced that continued discussions were vitally important, and that we could deal with temper tantrums and half-hearted non-concessions. Now, of course, the North Koreans have nuclear weapons, and they are arguably more dangerous than ever.
While the Iranians have conceded virtually nothing of value, President Obama has conceded a fair bit, particularly to the Russians. If the Russians were serious about aiding the United States in its efforts to contain Iran's nuclear efforts, they could pledge not to sell Iran the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. The S-300 is capable of destroying all but the most advanced American military aircraft, and it is one of the main reasons the Pentagon has invested billions in the Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22.
Earlier this month, the United States abandoned its Bush-era effort to deploy a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Bush White House insisted that the system was designed to deal with an Iranian missile threat, but Moscow was convinced that it represented a threat to their own deterrent. It seems clear that President Obama decided to abandon the missile-defense system to win favor with the Russians, which could later be used in a showdown with Iran. But would it have been too much to ask for a concrete concession on the S-300 in return? The danger here is that the Poles and the Czechs would see this as a new Yalta, in which they were being sold out for a grand strategic design. Instead, they were sold out—to put it harshly—in the vague hope that the Russians would be pleased.
To be sure, Medvedev's slippery statement about "inevitable" sanctions was very well-timed—and it may have even spooked the Iranians. Unfortunately, there's real doubt about whether Medvedev is running Russian foreign policy; many if not most observers believe that Vladimir Putin still dominates, and that he has no intention of disrupting Russia's amicable, and very profitable, relationship with the Islamic Republic. Some argue that Russia intends to keep Iran's nuclear program before the U.N. Security Council in an effort to constrain the options of the United States and its NATO allies.
Were the Russians to be totally frank about not cooperating with Western efforts, it's easy to imagine Obama and Sarkozy and Brown walking away from the Security Council. Instead, Medvedev and Putin are still stringing the United States along, all while Iran's not-so-secret secret weapons program keeps plugging away. President Obama is, like President Bush, doing his best to deal with an almost impossible situation, and it's hard not to sympathize. One hopes that the Iranians will come to their senses, and that the Russians aren't playing a double-game and that Obama's diplomatic approach will work. But my fear is that this won't end well.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.