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Hold Firm in Vienna By: Kenneth R. Timmerman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, June 15, 2006

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad likes to repeat Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous slogan, America can do nothing.

That’s what he believes when it comes to the latest offer by the Great Powers to Iran over its nuclear program. He believes he can simply spit in our face, and we will say, “Sorry.”


Because that’s what he did when former European Union official Javier Solana traveled to Tehran on June 6 to present the Great Power offer of nuclear cooperation. But Solana just took out his handkerchief, and smiled.


It’s going to be up to Condoleeza Rice to prove that Ahmadinejad is wrong. And that is going to be a tall order, since four of the other five persons in the Bush administration who have backed her offer to Iran all believe that America needs to learn to say sorry.


(Hint: the guy who doesn’t just returned from Baghdad.)


Solana was sent to Tehran to deliver what amounted to an ultimatum from the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. The ultimatum was not an American diktat, but in fact reiterated long-standing demands by the IAEA, the European Union, and most recently, the UN Security Council, that Iran verifiably suspend its uranium enrichment programs and cooperate fully and openly with the IAEA.


If Iran met those two conditions, the great powers were offering “a fresh start in negotiations of a comprehensive agreement” with Iran, that would provide Iran with technology and economic incentives, AFP reported yesterday from Vienna.


The offer included an explicit recognition that Iran could continue a civilian nuclear power program, and that the West would “actively support” such a program.


But as a top Iranian arms control official told me eleven years ago, Iran does not want nuclear power. Iran wants a dual-use nuclear program that will allow it to build nuclear weapons at the moment of its choosing. He called this “keeping our nuclear options open.”


Of course, the Non-proliferation treaty explicitly bans this type of nuclear technology transfer. Signatories of the treaty gain access to civilian nuclear technology if – and only if – they foreswear any intention or program to build nuclear weapons.


This is why Iran has rejected an offer that most countries would find too good to refuse. It wants to keep its nuclear options open.


The latest IAEA report to the Board of Governors, which meets today to discuss Iran’s case, describes with clinical accuracy Iran’s refusal of the Great Power offer.


At the very moment Solana was in Tehran, the report states, Iran notified the IAEA that it had “started feeding” uranium hexafluoride gas into an enrichment cascade composed of 164 high-speed centrifuges, and was “continuing its installation work on other 164-machine cascades.”

Iran also said it had launched “a new conversion campaign” of uranium hexafluoride feedstock for enrichment that same day.


The IAEA report went on to note that Iran had also rejected the other condition for resuming nuclear talks with the great powers, by refusing to answer repeated questions from IAEA inspectors about a parallel uranium enrichment program known as the Green Salt Project, as well as work on “high explosives testing” and a possible nuclear missile re-entry vehicle.


All three are related to nuclear weapons work, as part of a suspected parallel, undeclared program run by the Iranian military. “Iran has not expressed readiness to discuss these topics further,” the report noted.


What part of Iran’s “No” do we fail to understand?


It has said “no” to suspending enrichment, and “no” to transparency – effectively rejecting the Great Power offer. And yet, at the end of yesterday’s IAEA board meeting in Vienna, the Russian ambassador told the press as he left the Council chamber that he felt the IAEA should “continue talking” to Tehran.


The apparent linguistic disability of the great powers has been frustrating to Ahmadinejad. Just two days after Solana’s June 6 visit, he decided to make his rejection of the nuclear offer more clear.


Speaking to a crowd in Qazvin, home of one of Iran’s previously secret nuclear weapons research sites, Ahmadinejad reiterated his long-standing insistence that Iran would never give up its “definite rights” to uranium enrichment.


“If they think they can threaten and hold a stick over Iran's head and offer negotiations at the same time, they should know the Iranian nation will definitely reject such an atmosphere,” he said.


That is not coded diplomatic language, nor is it subject to interpretation. The Iranians have consistently used the same terms whenever they have flouted the International Atomic Energy Agency or the UN Security Council over uranium enrichment.


It is their right, they insist; therefore no one can demand that they give it up, even temporarily.

The key question is going to be whether the Great Powers hold to the ultimatum they had Solana deliver to Tehran. Already, voices are being raised – both here in the U.S. and elsewhere – that you cannot launch negotiations by imposing conditions.


But so far, the Western powers (as opposed to Russia and China) appear to be holding firm.


“Once a country has enriched uranium to the level needed for nuclear power,” a Western diplomat in Vienna explained, “that uranium is 70% of the way to what is needed to make nuclear weapons.”


“That’s why we’ve been so adamant about not allowing Iran to continue even “small scale” enrichment, because it’s already 70% of the way to the bomb,” he added. “You can’t be a little bit pregnant.”


Condoleeza Rice needs to step up to the plate, and make clear – yet again – that the Six Power offer to Iran is not a negotiating position, or an opening ante, as the Russians and Chinese apparently believe. It is exactly what she said it was when she first announced it on May 31. It’s a choice that the Iranians must make.


And now they have made it.


The worst possible outcome of the nuclear showdown with Iran would be for the West to ignore the Islamic Republic leaders when they clearly announce their choice.


It’s called the slippery slope. Take one step down that road, and it’s a quick bone-crushing ride down the chute to failure. And in this case, failure means a nuclear-armed Iran.


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Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).

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