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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.


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.