Iran's nuclear program: three lessons for Obama

If Washington is serious about halting weapons development, it can't let Iran off the hook.

In Italy last week, President Obama promised to "take stock of Iran's progress" in September. He wants to turn the tables on Iran, to show that the clock is ticking against its nuclear program if the Islamic Republic fails to rein in its atomic ambitions. But Mr. Obama avoided setting a deadline for action.

We are in a gray area now where the United States is trying to learn from years of diplomatic failure. After all, Iran has since 2002 defied international pressure while forging ahead with the assembling of an industrial complex to produce enriched uranium.

This fissile material can fuel power plants or atom bombs. Iran insists its nuclear effort is a peaceful drive to generate electricity. Iranian officials are annoyed that the West and the UN Security Council still suspect them of wanting to make nuclear weapons.

But Washington wants to impose its take on the crisis. To do this, three lessons should guide it.

Lesson No. 1: Don't let Iran off the hook. Before the election uprisings began last month, Washington was determined to move quickly on its tactic of offering to talk with Tehran without preconditions but not hesitating to levy strong sanctions if it failed to begin suspending enrichment. Crucial checkpoints were set: By September, Iran is to carry out confidence-building measures such as freezing enrichment at current levels; by December, Obama is to review how things are going.

In Iran, the protests and government crackdown continue. This creates a dilemma for Washington: Should it revise the timetable for engaging Iran in order to give that country time to resolve its political crisis?

Perhaps. The Iranians may be focusing more on their domestic dispute than on nuclear talks. On the other hand, even if the Iranians want to talk, bilateral meetings with a regime that brutally suppressed dissent could send the wrong signals. In any case, a meeting hoped for in July of European Union representatives with Iranian nuclear negotiators, as a first step toward serious talks, is on hold.

But revising the timetable carries a potentially steep price: It would give Iran more time to develop the capability to make a bomb. Obama's comments in Italy about taking stock are designed to show that this is not the case, that sanctions could still come quickly.

Lesson No. 2: Don't be specific. This seems counterintuitive, but look at the record. The Iranian nuclear crisis is littered with "red lines" for taking action.

The lines faded to pink and then disappeared as nothing definitive was done. Iran has now made enough low-enriched uranium to be able to refine out further, if it wished, a so-called significant quantity of highly enriched uranium, the amount needed to make one atom bomb.

In the early days of this crisis, say in 2004 or 2005, it would have been inconceivable that Iran could advance so far before being shut down by some kind of sharp reaction. But now, both the United States and Israel are reluctant to say at what point they would have no choice but to take drastic action.

Why? The logic is that Iran would want to have low-enriched uranium for several bombs, not just one, before it realigned its centrifuge machines for weapons-grade enrichment. And then it would take a year to refine the uranium to weapons levels, although some analysts say the Iranians could do this faster, especially if they have secret sites.

The US tactic now is to avoid putting up signposts, to be free to assess the situation without being bound to a deadline. A European diplomat told me that the West was being careful to understand the "difference between aspiration and reality."

The goal may be to move quickly on sanctions, but this may be difficult in a UN Security Council where key Iranian trading partners Russia and China have vetoes. Obama tried to get the Russians to promise him support, if necessary, on sanctions during his visit last week to Moscow, but it is not clear what pledges he got and how the Russians will act when the time comes for them to back tough measures.

Despite this, Lesson No. 3 is: Have limits. Observers of the West's attempts to negotiate, which have sputtered along since secret Iranian work was revealed in 2002, say the table is set for yet more stalling by the Iranians.

A weakened President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may seek talks in order to show that the West accepts him as a legitimate president. But the Iranians are far from striking a deal. If the Obama administration is serious about wanting to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability, it will have to impose its own schedule. The "taking stock" is an attempt to do just that.

Michael Adler is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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