As the Feb. 21 deadline for Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program fast approaches, both Iran and the West are scrambling to prepare themselves for all possible moves by the other side.
A scenario causing some discomfort among decision-makers in the George W. Bush administration would entail Iran succumbing to the Security Council request but only after first giving its nuclear program a decisive push.
After more than two years of negotiations, inspections, threats and counter threats, the Security Council finally put the Western demand for Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program into a legally binding Chapter VII Security Council resolution. With a deadline of Feb. 21, UNSCR 1737 requires a suspension of "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA," the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Though the sanctions imposed on Iran are relatively benign, markets in Iran have reacted negatively to the development and pragmatists in Iran are pressuring the country’s top decision-maker, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to find a face-saving way out of this situation before the standoff with the West escalates further.
This has proven a difficult task. Khamenei is suspicious of the intent of Western governments and has little faith in their willingness to reciprocate potential Iranian concessions. In his view, sources close to his office reveal, a hardline stance against the West should be tried since the more conciliatory policies pursued by former President Mohammad Khatami failed to produce any gains for Iran.
The counter-argument, presented by the pragmatists, goes that the softer policy helped avoid a costly and potentially unmanageable confrontation with the West.
According to Nasser Hadian, a political analyst close to the Reformist camp, Iran will likely announce the connection and operation of six cascades of centrifuges within the next few weeks. Sources familiar with the debate in Tehran say that Iran is considering using the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution on Feb. 11 to announce this decision and celebrate it widely.
By doing so, Hadian explains, the Iranian government would become psychologically and politically prepared to accept a compromise on its enrichment program. It would be a face-saving exercise that could pave the way for a suspension and an agreement to permit much tougher IAEA inspections in order to avoid any escalation in the Security Council. It would also provide Iran with a stronger position in the ensuing negotiations with the P5+1 states Britain, France, Russia, China, the United States and Germany.
Though Iran would agree to the UN Security Council demand and intrusive inspections, this move is still causing discomfort in Western capitals. In a standoff that increasingly has become about prestige and stature, and less and less about nonproliferation, the Iranian move might provide Tehran with a bit too much face-saving, in the view of some Europeans. It could be interpreted by Brussels as an insult and make the EU’s efforts to find a resolution to the nuclear wrestling match appear irrelevant.
After all, speeding up the Iranian program would counter the spirit and letter of the Security Council resolution, even if Iran would manage to suspend the program before the resolution deadline is reached.
More importantly, the Iranian move would signal that Tehran has in spite of US and EU efforts managed to master the fuel cycle. For Washington, this would cause an additional headache; mastering the fuel cycle is the latest Israeli red line (previously, Israel regarded uranium enrichment as the nuclear point of no return). Israel has signaled Washington that if Iran crosses this line, and the Bush administration refuses to take action, Israel will be left with no choice but to attack Iran itself.
As a result, from Israel’s perspective, the US policy will be proven a failure if Iran connects the cascades even if it subsequently suspends its nuclear program and enters into negotiations with the US and the EU for a long-term solution.
The threat of an Israeli attack on Iran, however, is likely still viewed with some skepticism in Washington, even though Israeli officials have as of late warned Washington that an attack may be imminent. The Israeli Air force still lacks the capability to successfully take out the known Iranian facilities. More importantly, US war plans involve not only targeting the nuclear plants but also much of the infrastructure related to the nuclear program.
While the US has the capability to target these points, Israel does not. A rash and unsuccessful military campaign could turn the political momentum to Iran’s favor and undermine efforts to stop Tehran.
Israeli military action would also spell disaster for Tel Aviv’s efforts to use the perceived threat from Iran to forge closer ties with the pro-Washington Sunni dictatorships in the region, without necessarily acceding to the long-standing Arab condition for such a diplomatic shift: an Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. As much as these Arab dictatorships loathe and fear Iran, they cannot gravitate towards Israel if it engages in a preemptive war against a fellow Muslim state.
Finally, Iran is the home to the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel itself. Approximately 25,000 Iranian Jews continue to live in the Islamic republic, a country they have called home since the Persian King Cyrus the Great liberated the Jews from the Babylonian imprisonment 2,500 years ago. Military confrontation with Iran could jeopardize the security of this ancient community, a move the Jewish State would be reluctant to take.
Yet, even if Israel doesn’t act on its threats, Washington will still be faced with a major political dilemma. On the one hand, it will be difficult for the US to refuse negotiations with Iran after having publicly repeated suspension of enrichment as its sole condition for talks.
"I myself have said I’ll show up any place, any time, anywhere to talk with my Iranian counterpart, with other European leaders, if the Iranians will just do the one simple thing that the world has been asking them to do for almost three years: suspend their enrichment capabilities," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told PBS News Hour earlier last month.
On the other hand, having defined a nuclear weapons capability as the mastering of the fuel cycle, and having vowed not to permit Iran to have such a capability, inaction by the Bush administration could come at the expense of appearing to backtrack on an important pledge to Israel. Washington hawks will no doubt accuse the president of letting Iran off the hook.
At some point, however, Washington, Brussels and Tehran must choose whether to win the battle for enrichment or the battle for prestige. Winning both may be outside the realm of possibility for all involved parties.