Analysis: Nuclear tightrope in Iran

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.

 

Military action from the U.S. is even harder to imagine. U.S. military reserves have been stretched by Iraq and Afghanistan, but even more of a consideration, is that the Iranians would most likely respond to a military strike with a new surge in state-sponsored terrorism, which is something that everyone wants to avoid. The Arab states are terrified of the pressure that Iran would put on them if it had the bomb, and almost equally terrified of the disruption to oil routes that would take place if Iran became engaged in a conventional war.

So where do we go from here? Obama’s strategy of building a broad coalition to pressure Iran from all sides, while offering a few carrots, seems the best tactic. The current offer on the table, known as freeze-for-freeze, would stop the sanctions where they are now in exchange for Iran agreeing to open inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and to put a halt to further enrichment.

Another offer is to provide Iran with a supply of uranium that it could use for civilian electric power reactors without having to go through the enrichment process on its own. While Iran has plenty of oil, it has no refining capacity, so it is dependent on foreign supplies for its fuel needs.

Another source of pressure to get the Iranians to toe the line could come from the Chinese and the Russians, who up until now have tried to present themselves as at least partially sympathetic to the Iranian cause. While both countries see advantages to keeping an open dialogue going with Tehran, both have to contend with their own Islamic minorities and the idea of Iran creating an “Islamic bomb” has to be cause for some concern.

Some analysts have argued that Iran wouldn’t know what to do with a bomb if it had one, and that any attempt to actually engage in nuclear blackmail would lead to unilateral assured destruction of Iran itself, but the Iranians have a disturbing affinity for martyrdom, and at a certain point no one wants to take a chance. Making the Russians and Chinese see the danger is probably the best chance the U.S. has of nudging the Iranians toward common sense.

This first meeting in Geneva will give all parties an opportunity to see where each one stands and how to move forward. If the Iranians show that they are willing to engage in a dialogue, another meeting will be scheduled this month. If not, a way will need to be found to increase the pressure on Tehran, without allowing it to backfire. Whichever way it goes, each country involved will need some time to reflect on where to go next.