Iran's sputnik

Negotiating isn't always done in words. Sunday, Iran launched a suborbital rocket, a day before the Security Council was to weigh more sanctions on Iran's nuclear enrichment. Was this a shot across the West's bow? Or partly a warm-up for striking a deal?

At the least, the 94-mile-high launch was a wake-up call about Iran's potential as a global military player, much like Russia's 1957 Sputnik launch escalated the cold war and started the space race.

The rocket itself, perhaps built with North Korean help, could be converted within a few years to a type that delivers a warhead 3,000 miles away. That would help lift Iran's military posture from purely defensive to a first-strike capability.

Iran's ambition to project power beyond the Middle East was clear enough after Russia launched two satellites for it in 2005. Iran now hopes to put four more satellites into space by 2010 by itself. They could simply provide Internet access and other telecommunications, or some might be used for military surveillance.

If Iran also then develops intercontinental rockets and nuclear warheads, both Israel and Europe may be in danger. (For the US, the Bush administration declared last year in a strategy paper that the US "may face no greater challenge from a single country than [from] Iran.")

Dealing with Tehran's clerics to climb down from such a scenario will reach another critical peak this week.

Last Wednesday, Iran ignored a Security Council deadline to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency stated that Iran refuses to adequately explain how it obtained small amounts of highly enriched uranium. The IAEA director also said Iran has already learned enough about enriching uranium in its research.

Iran's defiance of even Russia and China at the UN, combined with this "research" launch Sunday, will probably boost moves to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. But how tough?

Russia seems to have lost its ability to moderate Iran. (And with this rocket shot, Moscow also loses arguments against plans to place US-made antimissile technology in Eastern Europe.)

With the US already working independently of the UN to push for tighter European limits on loans and export credits to Iran, Russia would be wise to work with the US. Sanctions on Iran could achieve the same results as with Libya, which stopped its nuclear ambitions to end sanctions.

The current sanctions, imposed two months ago, simply restrict the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran and freeze assets of Iranian companies and individuals involved in nuclear work. What shocked Iran more was that the Council took action at all. Sunday's rocket launch could simply be a move to negotiate a deal.

But keeping unanimity among the five permanent UN members is crucial to ratcheting up the pressure. A next set of sanctions will require sacrifice by European firms doing business with Iran. Any new sanctions should include travel bans on senior Iranian leaders.

A united front in a second round of sanctions will send a powerful message – more power than rockets or nuclear weapons can – that the world wants Iran to change course, focus on its economic problems, and seek influence in other ways.

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