Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasts that world powers are getting weak knees about stopping his country's nuclear program.
Is the fiery leader right?
The United Nations Security Council is considering a watered-down resolution of sanctions aimed at punishing Iran for pursuing its uranium- enrichment program – a process that could lead to development of a nuclear weapon. But with the United States seemingly occupied with Iraq, and with Russia and China still balking at any action that would suggest "humiliation" of a valued trade partner, doubts are rising over how much the Europe-sponsored resolution will be worth.
"Nothing has changed for the better with respect to this resolution and what it says about determination to stop a very dangerous scenario before it gets out of control," says Gal Luft, codirector of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington. "The Iranians are moving ahead. The world is acting in ways that reduce the chance of having a real impact on that – and countries in the region are taking note of both."
Indeed, as prospects wane for tough international action against Iran, some countries in the region are expressing alarm at the pace of Tehran's progress toward mastery of the nuclear cycle. And they seem to be saying, "If the international community is not going to do something about it, we will." Such an attitude is raising fears of a Middle East arms race.
Noting that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries announced over the weekend their interest in developing a cooperative nuclear-energy program, former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross said, "Who is that message for? Let me tell you, it's not for Iran. It was for us."
Ambassador Ross, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also said at an event Tuesday that the Saudis are telling the US, "Stop them – or that [nuclear power] is the way we go, too."
The regional warnings on Iran come amid reports that the Saudis have also warned the US that they might be compelled to enter on the side of the Sunnis in any Iraq that the US had abandoned to civil war.
The countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council are Sunni powers expressing concerns over the rise of Shiite Iran, Mr. Luft says, which adds one more worrisome ripple to the signs of growing Sunni-Shiite tensions in Iraq and Lebanon. "They are saying that if there is to be a Shiite bomb, then they will need a Sunni bomb to counterbalance it," he says. "They don't want that, but if their neighbor Iran goes nuclear in this climate of deepening Shiite-Sunni divisions, they don't see how they could sit aside and not match it."
The Security Council draft resolution circulated this week by France, Britain, and Germany forgoes the proposed blanket sanctions against Iran that drew a Russian rebuff. Instead, it outlines sanctions focused on the country's uranium-enrichment process – targeting Iran's atomic-energy agency, facilities involved in the uranium-enrichment program, and individuals and companies associated with the program.
The resolution removes any reference to Iran's first nuclear power plant at Bushehr, while focusing on a pilot enrichment facility at Natanz. That change satisfies one Russian demand, but Russian officials have held out for additional changes.
If the resolution is passed by the Security Council before the end of the year, as some diplomats expect, it would be nine months after the international community first demanded that Iran cease its uranium enrichment or face tough trade and financial sanctions. By early next year, it will have been two years since the Bush administration deferred to European diplomacy to try to halt a program that Mr. Ahmadinejad says is purely peaceful but that European officials have concluded is designed to deliver nuclear weapons.
Some analysts say the US is so preoccupied with Iraq – and tied up in debate over whether it should engage Iran in diplomatic efforts to stabilize Iraq – that it has weakened its determination to stop a nuclear-armed Iran from emerging. They note that the resignation of John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, who is a fierce opponent of nuclear proliferation to dangerous "rogue states," has lowered the US profile in the struggle with Iran at a crucial moment.
Others note that while the US goes along with diplomatic efforts to curtail Iran's nuclear progress, President Bush continues to insist that "no options are off the table" in terms of guaranteeing that Iran never develops the bomb. They speculate that if Iran continues its nuclear march, the US could take military action to at least seriously damage its program before the end of Mr. Bush's term, claiming it had favored diplomatic action until the risk dictated another course.
In the meantime, Iran claims it has neared mastery of the nuclear cycle, from mining of uranium ore to its enrichment into fuel for nuclear facilities. Last weekend, Ahmadinejad announced his country had "begun" the installation of 3,000 centrifuges – which, if true, could be a major step toward large-scale uranium enrichment. He used the announcement to needle his international opponents, crowing that "resistance of the Iranian nation" has spurred the nuclear progress, even while forcing the world "to retreat tens of steps over Iran's nuclear issue," according to Iran's Fars news agency.
Nuclear experts say it is hard to say how much of this is "bluster" or to what degree it reflects real progress in the Iranian program. "A lot depends on what a phrase like 'beginning to install' really means," says David Kay, a security specialist at the Potomac Institute in Arlington, Va. "I don't think anyone would say they are 'mastering the fuel cycle,' which was another of [Ahmadinejad's] claims."
Mr. Kay notes, for example, that what is known about Iran's initial centrifuge "cascade," as the high-speed facility allowing uranium enrichment is called, suggests "they are still at a very, very preliminary stage" in their capabilities. "From what we hear the facility is down as much as it is up," he says. All this suggests Iran is still at least four years away from the ability to build a bomb, he says.
Yet as rudimentary as the program may still be, Luft says Iran is taking important but little-noticed steps to weather even weakened international sanctions. In a new report, his institute says Iran is acting to address its "Achilles' heel" – its lack of gasoline-refining capacity – by expediting construction of two new refineries, signing gasoline import contracts with "friendly countries" like Venezuela, and undertaking a crash conversion program to convert 1.2 million vehicles a year from gasoline to natural gas. Iran has the world's second-largest natural-gas reserve.
"They are taking all kinds of innovative measures, and showing by the high priority they are giving these measures that they do not intend to change course and capitulate on their nuclear program," Luft says. "It's become a matter of national pride."
In a similar way, he says that the Gulf countries are not talking about a nuclear program for energy reasons – but with national security in mind. "If you sit on top of the world's biggest pile of oil and gas, the last thing you need is nuclear energy," he says. "They would be doing this for security interests, not for energy."