When European nations resume talks with Iran in Vienna Wednesday over that country's nuclear ambitions, two dangerous new factors are in play. On the one hand, the patience of the Europeans and the United States with Iran is running thin. On the other hand, Iran's newly elected president has shocked a string of nations with some megalomanic pronouncements that if supported by his people would plunge Iran back into isolation. The stage is not set for compromise and consensus.
At issue is whether Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear technology for military purposes is purely for peaceful purposes, as it claims. The European nations and the US doubt that, pointing to a string of deceptive Iranian actions, including hiding from the International Atomic Energy Agency its secret installations to enrich uranium and produce plutonium.
Britain, France, and Germany have been conducting on-again, off-again negotiations with Iran that have produced little progress and raised questions as to whether this is a delaying tactic by the Iranians. The patience of the Western negotiators is running out. In a recent Wall Street Journal article their three foreign ministers declared that if Iran continues on its present path "Central Asia and the Middle East, the world's most volatile areas, may well be destabilized."
Meanwhile Western nations have been stunned by the confrontational rhetoric of Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map," and called the Holocaust a "myth." From the foreign ministries of a string of countries have come statements terming the comments irresponsible and unacceptable.
With such hardening of opinion on both sides where do we go now? Economic packages suggested by the Europeans have failed to deter the Iranian regime from its present course. A suggestion that Iran's uranium enrichment processing could be undertaken in Russia but only to enrichment levels for fuel, and not military use, seems to have gone nowhere. If the discussions between the European nations and Iran fail to produce any more than they already have, the next step would be for Iran's intransigence to be brought before the United Nations Security Council. Theoretically the Council could impose punitive sanctions on Iran, but Council members like Russia and China have substantial economic interests in Iran.
Remaining diplomatic options thus seem limited, and military action seems unrealistic. Militarily the US is fully committed in Iraq. While patience with Iran is running out in Europe, there is little stomach there for a military expedition to Iran. The nation probably most threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran with an unpredictable president would be Israel. Iran has missiles capable of reaching Israel and any hint that Iran is capable of putting a nuclear warhead on one of them would certainly cause any Israeli cabinet to ponder a preemptive Israeli strike. But Israeli action against a Muslim state like Iran would touch off a firestorm in the Middle East.
One imponderable is the extent to which President Ahmadinejad can be reined in by cooler heads in Tehran. Various Iranian spokesmen have been quick to tone down, or otherwise minimize his controversial remarks. While he may have support from hard-liners in parliament, other parliamentarians have crossed political swords with him. For example, for the important job of oil minister, parliament rejected his first three choices on grounds that they were technically unqualified. In addition to this, two-thirds of Iran's population is under 35, and unemployment in their ranks is high. To hold their support, Mr. Ahmadinejad will have to come through with jobs and economic prosperity. This could be impossible to do if he leads Iran into isolation from the outside world.
The US already is dealing with another unpredictable leader with nuclear pretensions, namely North Korea's Kim Jong Il. But while Mr. Kim is motivated by a variety of factors, Ahmadinejad seems to be on a single-minded crusade fomented by the perverse and hateful interpretation of Islamic lore that fuels the suicide bomber and terrorist.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.