Feature

Iran’s mixed message on its nuclear program

Iran barred United Nations inspectors from visiting a suspected nuclear weapons facility just days after it had offered to resume negotiations with the West.

What happened Iran frustrated Western governments with conflicting messages this week, barring United Nations inspectors from visiting a suspected nuclear weapons facility just days after it had offered to revive long-dormant negotiations with the West. The team from the International Atomic Energy Agency had hoped to examine the Parchin military base, 19 miles southeast of Tehran, where Iran is suspected of experimenting with nuclear warhead designs. But the regime blocked the request. In a letter to the European Union, Iran last week offered to resume talks with world powers over its nuclear program—which it insists is only for peaceful purposes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the letter an “important step,” but stressed that the seriousness of the proposal wasn’t yet clear.

With tensions in the region mounting, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged Israel to give international sanctions more time to work. Dempsey said that an Israeli strike would only set back the regime’s atomic program by “a couple of years,” and could spark retaliatory action against U.S. targets in the Gulf or Afghanistan. In Tehran, Iranian Gen. Mohammad Hejazi warned that his country would launch pre-emptive attacks if it believed the U.S. or Israel were planning military action. “We do not wait for enemies to strike us,” said Hejazi.

What the editorials saidWe’ll soon know if Iran’s offer to negotiate “is yet another attempt to buy more time,” said the Financial Times. The regime must offer real access to all its nuclear sites, “not just bluster about preconditions.” For negotiations to have any chance of succeeding, the West needs to accept that Tehran will never give up its civilian nuclear program to generate electricity, which is popular with Iranian citizens. The key will be deciding “what level of Iranian nuclear capability the world can live with.”

The U.S. isn’t trying very hard to get Iran to the table, said The Wall Street Journal. “The point of coercive diplomacy is to make an adversary understand that the costs of its bad behavior will be very, very high.” But by publicly advising Israel against an attack, Dempsey and the Obama administration have all but told Tehran that it can develop nuclear weapons without fear of serious military consequences. The White House’s display of weakness will only increase Tel Aviv’s anxiety about U.S. resolve, and thus “may drive Israel’s leadership to strike sooner.”

What the columnists said The international sanctions are clearly working, said Dennis Ross in The New York Times. “Iran is more isolated than ever,” food prices there are soaring, and the regime’s oil revenues are dropping. Eventually, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will have to decide what poses a greater threat to his rule: “ending his quest for nuclear weapons or stubbornly pursuing them as crippling economic pressures mount.”

Yet as long as Khamenei is in charge, “a sea change in policy seems unlikely,” said Alistair Lyon in Reuters.com. He’s deeply steeped in his “death to America” worldview, and fears that “any opening to the West would allow foreign influences to dilute Iran’s Islamic purity.” Unfortunately, said Amir Taheri in the New York Post, Obama is “a sucker for multilateralism,” so he’ll bite on this latest Iranian offer to negotiate. Iran has been playing this game since 2006, while continuing its program to build a bomb.

But would an Iranian bomb really be such a catastrophe? asked Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post. The Israelis say Americans do not understand how it feels to have a hostile, nuclear-armed nation talking about wiping it off the map. But we do. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at the U.S., while its leaders vowed to “bury’’ us and spread communism to every corner of the globe. In the end, the prospect of “mutual destruction” kept the Soviet nukes—and ours—in their silos. Israel could easily devastate Iran with its own arsenal of sophisticated nukes. So even if Iran succeeds in building a crude nuclear device, are the mullahs “likely to launch first?”

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