Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Leading up to the October 1 talks between the G-5+1 and Iran

Think Cuban missile crisis

Iran recently became aware that its adversaries had uncovered the existence of a nuclear facility in Qom. Last week, the US shared what it knew with Russia and China, trying to persuade them to support tougher sanctions against Teheran. Late Thursday, the mullahs abruptly "reported" the secret uranium enrichment plant still under construction to the International Atomic Energy Agency. And on Friday, the US, Britain and France announced that Iran had been exposed - for the third time - trying to deceive the world.

The underground facility, ensconced inside an Islamic Revolutionary Guards base, was described by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates as "part of a pattern" of "lies" that has characterized Iran's nuclear program from "the very beginning."

But don't expect Teheran to show contrition when it meets in Geneva on Thursday with the five permanent members of the Security Council - the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, plus Germany; its first official "engagement" with Washington in decades.

Iran will express, as did Ali Akbar Salehi, head of its Atomic Energy Organization on Saturday, shock at the negative reaction to Qom. In 2003, it promised to reveal any new facilities to the IAEA as soon as it made plans to build them, but later backtracked, allowing Salehi to argue that Iran had had no obligation to tell the IAEA about Qom any sooner.

Add Qom to the scary list of facilities - at Bushehr, Isfahan, Natanz and Arak, and who knows where else - where Islamist fanaticism is being wedded to weapons of mass destruction.

The Iranian leadership's unvarnished thinking on the Qom expose was enunciated by Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's bureau chief: "God willing, this plant will be put into operation soon, and will blind the eyes of the enemies."

WHAT happens next? President Barack Obama declared that his "offer of a serious, meaningful dialogue to resolve this issue remains open." But he wants Iran to "come clean" and "make a choice" - cooperation or "confrontation" with the international community. Obama says his policy of engagement and multilateral consultations means that if "diplomacy does not work, we will be in a much stronger position to, for example, apply sanctions that have bite."

That is doubtful. Iran's game continues to be a cunning combination of cooperation and recalcitrance. One step forward, two steps back. For example, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told The Washington Post that he is willing to have his nuclear experts meet with scientists from the United States as a confidence-building measure. Of course these experts will be in no position to answer questions about Iran's nuclear infractions.

The autocrat who stole a basically fixed Iranian election in which only vetted candidates could compete, who believes a cabal of Jews controls the world, that the Holocaust never happened and Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth, has now given his word that Iran has no interest in acquiring nuclear weapons: "We fundamentally believe nuclear bombs are the wrong thing to have."

Iran's stratagem is to "engage" as it pushes ahead with its bomb, thereby making it hard for the international community to impose meaningful sanctions. Once it feels certain it has all the pieces of the nuclear weapon's puzzle in place - fuel, warhead, delivery system - it might offer Obama a stop just short of a test detonation, in return for a long list of Western concessions.

Anyway, the pace of economic sanctions is way out of sync with the progress the mullahs are making on their bomb. Even if Russia and China accepted a winter embargo on refined petroleum products entering Iran, is there any reason to imagine that the mere discomfort of the Iranian masses would take precedence for Khameini and Ahmadinejad over the bomb?

Obama should leapfrog over futile intermediate steps and place draconian sanctions on the table, now. To paraphrase John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this would mean that all ships and planes bound for Iran, from whatever nation, would be turned back.

Perhaps this prospect, coupled with a complete land, sea and air quarantine, can influence Iran's leaders to rethink their one-step-forward-two-steps-back strategy, and save humanity from an Iranian bomb.

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