Iran has conducted its recent diplomacy with extraordinary skill and astuteness. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad may live in their own bizarre parallel universe in which terror, weapons proliferation and tyranny are acceptable norms. But give the Iranian dictators their due: they know their enemies. Europe is weak and, in the collective, without conviction.
For different reasons, the United States is also haunted by vacillation and fear. The Bush administration and its counterparts in London, Paris and Berlin are not similarly blessed in their understanding of the enemy in Tehran. To the contrary, plagued by the mirror imaging that has been a hallmark of allied diplomacy (think World War II and Uncle Joe Stalin), diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic believe they can do business with Iran. If we could only talk, the well-worn shibboleth goes, then we could persuade the Iranians. But persuade them of what? Revelations of Iran's secret nuclear program came in August of 2002, more than four years ago.
In the time since, the Iranian leadership, first under the "moderate" President Mohammad Khatami and then under the "hardline" current president, have dribbled out information about the program as necessary, allowed inspections sporadically, and suspended uranium enrichment briefly (and subsequently reneged). In other words, the regime has given up nothing and lost very little time as it works to perfect a fuel cycle necessary to supply a nuclear weapons arsenal.
Throughout this time, Iran has held its line. And why not? Nuclear weapons will likely mean an end to threats of war, an end to second- class citizenship in the Gulf, and a longer tenure for the mullahs over their terrorized populace. In light of those gains, what are the petty offerings and demands from indecisive western diplomats?
The EU-3 (UK, France, Germany) and the United States initially demanded that Iran suspend conversion of uranium ore to uranium hexafluoride. Iran initially agreed, but when Iran reneged the West accommodated itself to the new reality on the ground. Today no country is demanding that Iran suspend uranium hexafluoride production. Now the Europeans and the Americans (and the United Nations Security Council) are demanding a suspension of uranium enrichment, but all parties have hinted that Iran may be allowed to enrich in the future.
Faced with Iranian intransigence, the West's skilled negotiators have repeatedly upped the ante. Iran was first offered significant trade and economic incentives to keep its promised uranium suspension in place. But after Tehran unilaterally violated its pledge to suspend enrichment, Europeans argued that Iran had not been offered sufficient goodies and proffered a detailed and more generous incentives package, including benefits from the United States. Tehran rejected the package out of hand.
Since then, Europe and the United States have been threatening sanctions on a regular basis, backing down with predictable speed, offering further incentives (including direct dialogue with the US for the first time since the Iranian revolution), and threatening again. But the Iranians have broken the code: UN sanctions are not coming--Russia and China will not allow it. And if the recent rhetoric from Brussels is any indication, the Europeans aren't really that serious either. Finally, the Americans, who threaten loudly and often about "unacceptable" nuclear programs, are hardly more serious than the Europeans.
Rather than the confused "speak loudly and carry no stick" policy embraced by the United States of late, a better course would be to move forward immediately with sanctions by those nations willing to impose them. If the United Nations continues to be the venue for dialogue about Iran, nothing will happen. Similarly, offers of dialogue with Iran are a waste of time (much as they have been with North Korea). Iran has been offered a great deal, but is clearly unwilling to end its nuclear weapons program. In the face of that reality, offering an ever higher price to an unwilling seller is a waste of time.
In addition, nations that have influence over the Tehran regime must make choices: Russia can continue to support Iran diplomatically, economically and militarily (note the ever more sophisticated air defenses Moscow is shipping out), but it must not be allowed to do so without a price. For starters, the US-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement offered up by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice must come off the table.
Will these steps end Iran's nuclear program? Almost certainly not. However, unlike the feckless diplomatic minuet currently underway, they will signal some seriousness. In addition, as the noose around the regime tightens, it will force Iran's leaders to consider the costs of having nuclear weapons--a fate they have managed to escape thus far. Finally, a harder line from the West may actually buy the right people some time--those inside Iran opposed to the regime and outside Iran trying to shake the mullahs from their perch.
Iran has pursued ruthless oppression at home, terrorism abroad and weapons proliferation, largely with impunity. The time has come to end the free ride. We have talked about talking for long enough; there must be other options. If those options are unavailable to those most threatened by a nuclear armed Iran (that is, the American people), then the likelihood of war becomes ever greater. It is not wise to force America into a choice between doing nothing and doing everything. But it may come to that.
Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI.
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