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Analysis: Nuclear tightrope in Iran

Everyone is concerned about Iran's nuclear program. The question is what to do about it.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, right, and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana arrive for a meeting on nuclear power of Iran in Geneva, Oct. 1, 2009. Six world powers met with Iran in Switzerland on Thursday for talks U.S. officials said would need to convince them Tehran was prepared to show it was not hiding plans for a nuclear bomb. (Dominic Favre/Reuters)

GENEVA, Switzerland — The meeting here in Geneva is being billed as the last chance for a diplomatic solution to what many see as Iran’s race to build a nuclear bomb.

In diplomacy, it is a good rule never to say “never,” but there is no question that this time there is a lot at stake. Iran's chief negotiator on its nuclear program is meeting with representatives from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.

The Obama administration is edging into these talks with extreme caution. The Iranians had previously refused to talk directly with U.S. diplomats. The current meeting involves a US delegation, with a possibility of one-on-one sidebar meetings. But the U.S. is also making it clear that it wants more than talk for the sake of talk.

Senior U.S. officials emphasize that the secret uranium enrichment facility discovered near Qom, an Iranian holy city, which is home to many of Iran’s most important religious academies, is a major cause for concern. “If it was designed to be a covert site, and I believe that it was designed to be a covert site, it is unlikely to be a covert site for civilian purposes,” commented one diplomat.

The question is what anyone is going to do about it. The U.S. has hinted at increased sanctions, but sanctions have proven ineffective in the past. They mostly hurt people who have nothing to do with making political decisions, and there is the added risk that this time around they are likely to play into the hands of the hardliners. Both Iran’s Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamanei and its President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad are coming under growing pressure from political opponents at home, and they may see U.S.-supported sanctions as just the trick to build a patriotic front, unifying the population against a foreign enemy. So while sanctions may sound appealing, they can easily turn out to be counterproductive.

The military option is also problematic. Iran is more than twice the size of Iraq, and its military would be a formidable force to deal with. Besides the U.S. wants more from Iran than a simple halt to its nuclear program. It would like Iran’s help in getting radical Islamic movements, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, to moderate their positions, and it could also use Iranian help in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Israeli air force successfully destroyed Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, but everyone knew where that reactor was, and the French, who were operating the reactor, very likely provided crucial help in knocking it out. As the clandestine nuclear enrichment site near Qom demonstrates, it is hard to tell how many nuclear installations the Iranians really have, and even more importantly, what kind of protection they have. Hardened bunkers would be impervious to conventional airstrikes. An attack that failed would likely stir up the Middle East and make finding a solution even more difficult.