Why did Iran stop – if it really did stop – a nuclear-bomb project four years ago, as American spy agencies now estimate? Was it the US invasion of Iraq, economic sanctions, Iranian doubts, or what? Should the answer really affect the next steps for further pressure on Iran?
To simply say the urgency for tougher sanctions on Iran is now gone is to ignore that question of intent behind Iran's apparent decision. If outside pressure worked, there's still a need for it.
It's very likely that United States-led actions did influence this ostensible decision by Iran's reigning Muslim clerics. The world may never know for sure, although recent high-level defectors from the regime may provide clues.
The international community needs to take this latest news, brought to them in a US National Intelligence Estimate, with a grain of salt the size of Iraq. In 2003, American intelligence agencies said Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Two years ago, they concluded Iran was nearing construction of an atomic bomb. The first report helped push the US to war. The second led to tougher sanctions on Iran as well as talk of a preemptive strike on its facilities.
Rather than rely on the shaky reputation of US spydom, the UN Security Council needs to look – as it has up to now – at Iran's continuing secrecy about its nuclear program. Why did it hide its covert work for 18 years? Why was Iran in a pell-mell rush to build 3,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium? It doesn't really need them to generate electricity from nuclear power, but such a step can produce bomb-grade uranium by next year – a "red line" not to be crossed, according to President Bush.
Iran's strategy may well be to have full capacity to build a bomb without building one. But what's the difference if this hip-pocket atomic potential comes with an Iran that still backs terrorist groups in other countries, officially labels the US as an enemy, seeks to banish a Jewish state from the Middle East, and exports its Shiite "revolution" to Sunni neighbors?
Further sanctions must be designed to have Iran forswear building a bomb, dismantle its bombmaking facilities, and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify such steps. For now, the IAEA remains frustrated in simply gaining compliance – clear evidence of Iran's nuclear intent.
Sanctions will force Iran's rulers to realize their own interest in focusing on the dire economic needs of their people without seeking regional dominance. The 1979 revolution is failing, buttressed by high oil prices. It can't be fulfilled by striking fear in the Middle East with a nuclear potential that's spawning a nuclear race.
That the US, rather than Iran, is the one to break the news of Iran supposedly halting its nuclear-bomb project simply shows how far Iran remains from gaining the world's trust. To build such trust, it must come clean with the IAEA and restore confidence with its European interlocutors. Then the ground may be laid for talks with the US on general security issues.
But the ruling clerics don't even trust their own people in running Iran's co-opted democracy. If they did, a real democracy probably wouldn't have led to this crisis. Sanctions are a message to Iranians that they need new leadership.