After many months of probing Western resolve, Iran’s leaders ended any possible ambiguity as to their nuclear intentions on January 10, when they forcibly removed IAEA seals that had been put in place to prevent them from producing nuclear weapons material.
IAEA inspectors dispatched to Iran for the occasion pointedly refused to remove the seals themselves. In a confidential report back to Vienna, they said the Iranians not only removed seals at key nuclear production facilities, but began feeding uranium hexafluoride (UF6) into a centrifuge enrichment cascade, a key step toward the bomb.
Iran’s actions so incensed IAEA Secretary General Mohammed ElBaradei that he told reporters in Vienna he was “losing his patience” with Tehran’s leaders and that “a red line for the international community” was fast approaching.
This is a crisis that has been building not just for months, but for years. And while events will now move at a very fast clip, it is useful to pause the camera an instant and examine exactly what got us here.
Secretary General Mohammad ElBaradei has been downplaying the building crisis with Iran since the first public revelations emerged in August 2002 that Iran had violated its safeguards agreement. Until now, he has placed his bets on diplomatic overtures to Tehran by Germany, France and Britain – the “EU-3.”
The problem with this approach is that it relies on a mistaken assumption that some combination of pressure and inducements will change the behavior of decision-makers in Tehran. This same mantra has been repeated in various forms since Nov. 4, 1979, when Iranian “students” seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took our diplomats hostage for 444 days. The United States has frozen Iranian government assets, and unfrozen them. We have imposed sanctions, lifted them, and imposed them anew. And through it all, Tehran’s rulers have continued to murder Americans wherever they could find them – in Beirut, in Gaza, Jerusalem, and today in Iraq.
Similarly, in their negotiations with the Europeans, Iran’s leaders have made solemn pledges to “suspend” uranium enrichment activities, and broken them almost immediately. While such perfidy generated hand-wringing from Vienna to London, it did not prompt the Europeans or the IAEA to take firmer action. Instead, the diplomats explored new incentives and “packages” to offer Tehran.
The Western world may finally be waking up to this long running con game. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has emerged as an Iranian id, saying what until now has been the unsayable. It is clearer than ever before that Tehran’s leaders are not about to negotiate away their nuclear weapons capabilities. At best, they want to “keep their nuclear options open,” as a senior Iranian official told me in 1995. At worst, they have used the enrichment equipment we now know they have imported through the black market network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan to produce nuclear weapons material, and are just buying additional time while they assemble their weapons.
So, if negotiations are not going to bring Iran’s leaders to reason, what will, short of military force?