Playing Into His Hands

Obama may have talked tough last week about Iran’s nuclear program, but diplomats tell The Daily Beast’s Michael Adler that the revelations secretly strengthen the hard-liners in Tehran.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Truth can be stranger than fiction, and so can diplomacy. The revelation of a second Iranian site for enriching uranium is, for the moment, more of an annoyance than a victory for the United States and its allies in trying to deal with Iran. Such a conclusion may seem to fly in the face of prevailing wisdom about the most recent twist in the nuclear crisis. Iran has been caught hiding yet another nuclear site, a plant for enriching the uranium that can be fuel for a nuclear reactor, or for an atom bomb. At first glance, Iran may appear more vulnerable, as it’s been found yet again to be acting suspiciously.

Diplomats are more worried about Iran walking away from negotiations than they are in delivering a diplomatic knockout punch at this point to the Islamic Republic.

But that’s not how diplomats involved are thinking. They are more worried about Iran walking away from negotiations than they are in delivering a diplomatic knockout punch at this point to the Islamic Republic. In baseball terms, they are looking for a single rather than a home run from the first round of talks Thursday between the Islamic Republic and the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. If Iran is discredited as a negotiating partner, the talks could be dead in the water even if they are held.

There is concern that such an outcome is exactly what some hard-liners in Tehran want, and that this could be why Iran disclosed the site to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. One diplomat told me: “Why couldn’t this have come out in three months? We could have dealt with it then.” His point: The enrichment site is far from completion and, right now, the talks are the thing needed to resolve the crisis.

Backing this argument are diplomats who say the United States and key allies not only have known for a while about the latest Iranian site, which is near the holy city of Qom, but know a lot more. It is not news to say Israel is extremely concerned about the Iranian program, but the diplomat I spoke with went further, adding that their concern “is well-founded.” Washington does not want more information coming out now because it would make talking to Iran all but impossible. The goal of the first meeting Oct. 1 is a modest one—to win an agreement for a second meeting. The United States and its allies want to get a negotiating process going. In addition, what better way to negotiate than to have revelations in your pocket, ready to be pulled out at the appropriate time?

Diplomacy is essential because no one wants to attack Iran, least of all the Israelis. What seems to be lost in the headlines is how reluctant the Israelis have been. They stress repeatedly that Iran is not an Israeli problem, it is an international problem. Their public relations effort is directed at getting the United States and its allies to act, rather than having Israel be on the front lines, diplomatically or otherwise. There is much speculation about whether Israel is set to strike but little realization that any strike, whether from Israel, the United States, or anyone else, would have to be a game changer, not a pinprick. Strategists seem already to have ruled out an attack that would only set the heavily bunkered, strategically spread-out Iranian nuclear program back a few years. An effective strike would have to be much bigger, a wider war—which is unthinkable at present. Things may come to this, but such an attack is off the table until the hope of diplomacy ends. The Israelis did not have to be convinced to back the diplomacy; their main concern has been to make sure the stakes are clear and that Iran is kept from playing a delaying game.

Meanwhile, the Iranians doggedly maintain that their nuclear program is peaceful. And they can keep on doing so even as the IAEA says, after more than six years of investigations, that “the jury is still out” on whether Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. The newly discovered enrichment plant is not yet the “smoking gun” that would convince the IAEA jury. The problem remains that Iran could master the nuclear fuel cycle, do weaponization work on the side, stop short of making a bomb, and be more or less in line with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and almost as much a threat as if it actually made the bomb.

In addition, the Iranians are resourceful in pleading their case. They claim, for instance, that their reporting the Qom site to the IAEA is a sign of cooperation, rather than their bowing to the inevitability of the information coming out anyway. The Iranians remain a formidable diplomatic foe. They are defying U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on them to suspend uranium enrichment. They are withholding full cooperation from the IAEA even as they claim the IAEA is the agency that should be resolving the problem.

We have most certainly entered an endgame phase in the Iranian nuclear crisis. The discovery of the Qom site, Iran’s amassing enough low-enriched uranium to process further into at least one bomb and other technological breakthroughs, are signs of this. This is why the United States is banking so strongly on diplomacy. Washington and its allies want to initiate and widen their engagement policy if they can get any real traction from Iran. And this is why truths such as Iran’s determined work in building up and protecting its enrichment capability are so inconvenient when talks are finally only days away.

Michael Adler, a longtime reporter for Agence France-Presse, is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and is writing a book on Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, which he has covered for most of this decade.