The first direct, high-level talks between the U.S. and Iran in three decades ended on a hopeful note last week, when Iran agreed to grant inspectors access to its recently revealed uranium-enrichment facility at Qum. The Geneva talks—involving the U.S, Iran, and five other powers—got off to a tense start when the U.S. charged that the Qum facility was further proof that Iran is hiding a nuclear arms program. Iran has insisted it is pursuing only a peaceful nuclear energy program, and said last week that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors would be invited inside Qum later this month. Western diplomats said Iran also agreed in principle to allow its uranium to be sent to Russia to be enriched into fuel suitable for power plants but not bombs. “We are at a critical moment,” said IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei. “We are shifting from confrontation into transparency and cooperation.”
But the issue took on new urgency when The New York Times reported this week that a confidential IAEA analysis concludes that Iran has already acquired “sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable” nuclear bomb. That finding is in conflict with U.S. intelligence estimates, which say Iran gave up active efforts to design a bomb in 2003 because of international pressure. “Whether they know how to [build a bomb] or not is a matter of some conjecture,” said Gen. James Jones, President Obama’s national security advisor. “What we are watching is what is their intent, and we have been worried about that intent.”
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What the editorials said
Iran’s pledge on inspections could be a breakthrough—or just another stalling tactic, said The New York Times. “For years, Iran has cheated and lied and made just-in-time concessions” to avoid additional sanctions over its nuclear programs. Still, given the turmoil in Iran in the wake of June’s “stolen” election, Iran’s leaders could be worried that they wouldn’t be able to survive “tough international sanctions.” For that reason alone, further negotiations are worthwhile—but only if they are followed by punitive measures if they fail.
The time for patience has passed, said the New York Post. “Does anyone seriously think the world is any closer today to bursting Iran’s dreams of nuclear weapons?” The leaked IAEA report says the mullahs are already well on their way to building nukes, and they have openly said they seek the destruction of Israel. We can’t wait for “a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv” to take decisive action.
What the columnists said
But what kind of decisive action? asked Michael Rubin in National Review Online. Israel has threatened to bomb Iran’s reactors, but an Israeli air attack would merely “delay” Iran’s nuclear program, not halt it. Not only would a military strike spark a regional war, a ruinous spike in oil prices, and a terrorism “epidemic,” it would rally Iranians to their weakened regime. And Iran would be handed the perfect justification for its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
All the more reason to give diplomacy a chance, said Ray Takeyh in The Boston Globe. The Bush administration tried “years of harsh rhetoric and threats of military retribution,” yet the entire time, Iran was busily building a nuclear infrastructure. “The Obama administration’s offer of direct diplomacy has altered the landscape and yielded an unprecedented international consensus that has put the recalcitrant theocracy on the defensive.” The threat of sanctions, coming from a united international community, seems to be working.
Unfortunately, the “progress” we’re witnessing could be illusory, said Jackson Diehl in The Washington Post. It remains to be seen whether Russia and China would actually approve the “crippling” sanctions Obama has called for, such as a ban on gasoline or arms sales. But even if they did, it might not matter. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was under severe sanctions for years, yet he remained defiant and belligerent. No U.S. official will say this “out loud,” but the best the U.S. may be able to hope for with Iran is some form of Cold War–type “containment” that strongly discourages use of the nuclear bomb the regime eventually develops. It’s not a great option, but there are no good ones.
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