Iran, nukes, and diplomatic fantasies

Our approach to stopping Iran's pursuit of nuclear weaponry is not working. To keep buying the line that it is, is to ignore a cascade of evidence to the contrary

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Lawrence J. Haas
On 30 August 2012 10:44

On the Iran nuclear crisis, hope not only springs eternal; in Western circles, it springs maddeningly so.

We often hear that our approach to stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weaponry is working; Iran is more isolated than ever. Sanctions are biting; its economy is suffering; Tehran is ready to talk. The international community can solve the crisis through diplomacy. We just need to stick with it.

To keep buying this line from the White House, its European allies, the New York Times editorial page, and other opinion leaders, you need to ignore a cascade of evidence to the contrary from recent days.

A supposedly “isolated” Iran is hosting this week’s conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), to which 120 countries are sending heads of state or other senior representatives. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is attending, ignoring U.S. and Israeli calls to stay away and mocking the UN’s own efforts to isolate Tehran for disregarding Security Council calls to stop enriching uranium.

Never fear, however. While enjoying Tehran’s hospitality, Ban will, his spokesman assured us, “convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community on the issues for which cooperation and progress are urgent for both regional stability and the welfare of the Iranian people… These include Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism, human rights, and the crisis in Syria.” Oh, good.

Not surprisingly, Tehran seemed unfazed.

Kayhan, the daily Iranian newspaper that’s close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, called the NAM conference “a ringing slap not only to Israel’s face, but also to the face of the U.S. and the entire 5+1 [the negotiating group that includes the five Security Council members plus Germany].”

As for sanctions, yes, four rounds of sanctions from the Security Council, and additional U.S. and European sanctions, have taken their toll. Iran’s economy is weak, and its financial firms face hurdles to participating in the global system.

But, with the NAM conference, Iran is mocking the sanctions effort and showing how Tehran can work around them.

“The NAM conference in Tehran,” Kayhan asserted in an August 23rd editorial, “will… yield new economic contracts between Iran and several of the strong NAM members – meaning that the neutralization of the West’s boycott against Iran will be one of the conference's main accomplishments.”

Avaz Heidar-Pour, a National Security Committee member in Iran’s parliament, said, “So far, close to $60 billion has been allocated for economic contracts that are to be signed with Iran during the conference by the presidents and ministers of the countries that participated in the conference.”

As for Iran’s readiness to talk, yes, Iran will talk. In fact, it recently completed a new round of talks with global negotiators in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow. But, despite the high hopes of Western diplomats that, this time, Tehran was serious about cutting a deal, the talks ended with a predictable thud.

Why? Because, as Iran knows well but the West often forgets, talk is one thing, action quite another.

Indeed, talks serve Iran’s interests. They lull the global community into false hopes of striking a deal with Tehran, and they give Tehran more time to make progress on its nuclear program.

What Tehran won’t do is abandon its nuclear pursuit, as it has reminded the world in telling ways in recent days.

Last week in Vienna, Iran refused to give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to the Parchin military site at which the IAEA believes Iran conducted explosive tests that are relevant to developing nuclear weapons.

Whether a visit would help much at this point is questionable anyway. The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security suspects Iran has sanitized the site to eliminate evidence of such testing.

Meanwhile, Iran’s chief negotiator on nuclear issues told the NAM gathering that Tehran won’t stop enriching uranium – a longstanding UN, U.S., and European demand that sits at the heart of the crisis.

“We will not relinquish our inalienable rights to peaceful use of nuclear energy and uranium enrichment,” Ali Asghar Soltanieh said, echoing Iran’s fanciful contention that it seeks nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes.

In addition, the IAEA is expected to report soon that Iran has installed a few hundred more centrifuges at its Fordow underground site, enabling it to enrich more uranium at the 20 percent purity level that, experts say, it can quickly convert to bomb-grade fuel. In response to this news, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor insisted “there is time and space” for diplomacy to work.

Predictably, the New York Times editorialized that “Washington’s caution is well-placed, especially when set against the overheated statements of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, that time is running out.”

The Times acknowledged that Iran has installed more centrifuges at Fordow, continues to ignore Security Council demands to stop enriching, and has nuclear ambitions that are “clearly dangerous to Israel and the region.” It described the NAM meeting as a “major blow” to efforts to isolate Tehran and noted that Persian Gulf states are buying new U.S. weapons to counter a nuclear-armed Iran.

“It is disappointing,” the Times volunteered, “that recently toughened sanctions and several rounds of negotiations have not produced positive results.” Nevertheless, the Times would not change course. “If there is to be any chance of” achieving “positive results,” it wrote, “the world is going to have to stay united in enforcing sanctions and isolating Iran.”

I see.

Lawrence J. Haas was Communications Director and Press Secretary for Vice President Al Gore. He writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs and is the author of ‘Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion' (just out from Rowman & Littlefield).

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