Iran may have finally exhausted the world’s patience. This weekend, representatives of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China met to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. After the talks, Britain, France, and Germany–the EU-3–announced that they were preparing a resolution calling for an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on February 2-3, at which time the IAEA board would vote on whether to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
The meeting–which came in response to Iran’s decision, carried out last week, to break IAEA seals at its main uranium-enrichment facility–should not be taken as proof of unified Western intent to confront Iran. But it is a sign that the West has woken up to the seriousness of the threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose.
Since the discovery of Iran’s clandestine nuclear program nearly three years ago, the West has been divided between two competing views. The first–associated with the United States, and especially with “hard liners” Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Bolton–was that the IAEA should immediately refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council. Proponents of this approach didn’t assume that a solution would be found in the U.N., but they saw a Security Council referral as a necessary step in demonstrating the seriousness of our resolve to block Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
The second view–associated with the EU-3, and advocated by Colin Powell and, initially, Condoleezza Rice–held that referral to the Security Council would antagonize Iran and decrease the probability of a negotiated solution. For two and a half years, this view prevailed. Washington deferred to Europe as it tried first to cajole and eventually, through a collection of economic incentives and security guarantees, to bribe Iran into giving up the components of its nuclear program that could be used for weapons production.
During those fruitless negotiations, Iran revealed its true designs. If its sole aim were the peaceful production of nuclear power, nothing would have stopped it from accepting the deals Europe offered–which included, among other things, civilian nuclear technology. Instead, Iran refused to make even a single significant concession to the West, all the while issuing dark threats about the consequences of thwarting its “right” to a nuclear program. These provocations have recently been given emphatic punctuation by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who holds that the Holocaust is a “myth” and has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”
That–combined with Iran’s resumption of research on uranium enrichment–was too much for even Europe to stomach, and the EU-3 announced that negotiations had reached a dead end. In doing so, Europe fully vindicated the “hard line” position within the Bush administration: There is now a trans-Atlantic consensus that Iran cannot be trusted as a negotiating partner, and that its case must be taken up by the Security Council. The choice, Europe seems finally to have realized, is not between a nasty confrontation with Iran now and a negotiated solution later, but rather between a nasty confrontation with Iran now and a much nastier confrontation with Iran later.
“Military action cannot
Whether the U.N.’s other powerbrokers share that realization is unclear. Kofi Annan, clueless as ever, responded to the EU-3’s new tack by insisting that Iran was still interested in “serious and constructive negotiations.” Vladimir Putin says that Russia, a major investor in Iran’s first nuclear-power plant, is now “very close” to the position of the U.S. and the EU-3; but China–heavily reliant on Iranian oil–remains a potential hindrance. Both Russia and China sit on the U.N. Security Council, and their cooperation–or at least their acquiescence–would be required to enact any sanctions regime.
Concerns about oil are not limited to China, however: A reduction in supply would drive up prices worldwide. Oil is of course a fungible commodity, and there is at least a theoretical possibility that lost Iranian exports could be offset by increased output from other producers. Whether OPEC will allow such an increase is a different question, and the Security Council will have to ask itself whether, in the name of long-term security, it is willing to pay a short-term economic price.
It is also unclear whether sanctions will be effective. Iran’s highly ideological regime may prove impervious to economic pressures, and it is even possible that sanctions could strengthen the regime by giving the mullahs a means of galvanizing opposition to the West. This seems unlikely, given that one of the Iranian dissident community’s chief complaints against the regime is that its actions have isolated Iran–a perception that economic sanctions are only likely to underscore. But in any case, we must confront the possibility that sanctions will not bring about the desired outcome. For that reason, military action cannot be forsworn.
Critics of such a solution point out that Iran’s nuclear facilities are spread out over many locations, as though this were proof that any military campaign would be ineffective. But destroying Iran’s nuclear program would not require destroying every facility. The production of nuclear weapons involves a series of processes, from the mining of Uranium to its enrichment and weaponization to the eventual construction of warheads. Breaking the chain at any point along the way would incapacitate the program–and this is something that could probably accomplished through a vigorous round of air strikes.
While we should hope that military action proves unnecessary, we must also understand that it becomes likelier to the very degree that Iran thinks it is unlikely and, accordingly, refuses to accede to Western demands. British foreign secretary Jack Straw’s recent comments ruling out the use of military force are therefore destructive to the interests of peace, as is any signal that the West has resigned itself to the advent of an Iranian nuclear age.
President Bush has said repeatedly that the United States will accept no such thing. We take him at his word. For Iran–the world’s most incorrigible state sponsor of Islamic terrorism–to acquire nuclear weapons not only would increase the mullah’s nefarious sway in the region, but would also expose America and her allies to a potentially mortal danger. Iran quite simply must be stopped. That Europe appears to have moved toward this conclusion is cause for limited optimism. But it should in no way attenuate the sense of urgency we feel–or our will to act.