With U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice noting that Iran has definitively "chosen confrontation with the international community," the United States and Europe called on the International Atomic Energy Agency today to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.
After many months of probing Western resolve, Iran's leaders ended any possible ambiguity as to their nuclear intentions on January 10, when they forcibly removed IAEA seals that had been put in place to prevent them from producing nuclear weapons material.
IAEA inspectors dispatched to Iran for the occasion pointedly refused to remove the seals themselves. In a confidential report back to Vienna, they said the Iranians not only removed seals at key nuclear production facilities, but began feeding uranium hexafluoride (UF6) into a centrifuge enrichment cascade, a key step toward the bomb.
Iran's actions so incensed IAEA Secretary General Mohammed ElBaradei that he told reporters in Vienna he was "losing his patience" with Tehran's leaders and that "a red line for the international community" was fast approaching.
This is a crisis that has been building not just for months, but for years. And while events will now move at a very fast clip, it is useful to pause the camera an instant and examine exactly what got us here.
Secretary General Mohammad ElBaradei has been downplaying the building crisis with Iran since the first public revelations emerged in August 2002 that Iran had violated its safeguards agreement. Until now, he has placed his bets on diplomatic overtures to Tehran by Germany, France and Britain &endash; the "EU-3."
The problem with this approach is that it relies on a mistaken assumption that some combination of pressure and inducements will change the behavior of decision-makers in Tehran. This same mantra has been repeated in various forms since Nov. 4, 1979, when Iranian "students" seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took our diplomats hostage for 444 days. The United States has frozen Iranian government assets, and unfrozen them. We have imposed sanctions, lifted them, and imposed them anew. And through it all, Tehran's rulers have continued to murder Americans wherever they could find them &endash; in Beirut, in Gaza, Jerusalem, and today in Iraq.
Similarly, in their negotiations with the Europeans, Iran's leaders have made solemn pledges to "suspend" uranium enrichment activities, and broken them almost immediately. While such perfidy generated hand-wringing from Vienna to London, it did not prompt the Europeans or the IAEA to take firmer action. Instead, the diplomats explored new incentives and "packages" to offer Tehran.
The Western world may finally be waking up to this long running con game. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has emerged as an Iranian id, saying what until now has been the unsayable. It is clearer than ever before that Tehran's leaders are not about to negotiate away their nuclear weapons capabilities. At best, they want to "keep their nuclear options open," as a senior Iranian official told me in 1995. At worst, they have used the enrichment equipment we now know they have imported through the black market network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan to produce nuclear weapons material, and are just buying additional time while they assemble their weapons.
So, if negotiations are not going to bring Iran's leaders to reason, what will, short of military force?
Secretary Rice is keeping her cards close to her vest. "I think it's very clear that everybody believes that a very important threshold has been crossed here," she told reporters on Thursday. Noting that Ahmadinejad "has done nothing but confront the international system ever since he came into power," she nevertheless kept the door open to further diplomacy.
"The Security Council is a very important step because it brings a certain weight to the IAEA requirements that is currently not there," she said. The UN referral "is not an issue of the end of diplomacy," she said, but the beginning of a "new phase in diplomacy."
Senior officials counseling Mrs. Rice and the President have urged them to propose a "package deal" they believe Tehran could not refuse. They take their cue from a 2004 Council on Foreign Relations study on Iran co-authored by Rice's former mentor, retired General Brent Scowcroft, and the man who gave us the Ayatollahs in the first place, Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzerzinski.
But Iran has already rejected this approach, and is not seeking a rapprochement with the United States, as the CFR believes. Iran is seeking the bomb.
It is time, instead, to use all the tools of power diplomacy. Here are just a few steps the United States with its allies can take.
At the UN Security Council, the U.S. must press for broad sanctions against the Iranian regime. These sanctions could include:
Eventually, should the regime still refuse to halt their nuclear activities &endash; and refuse they will &endash; the United States should press the coalition of the willing we assemble in New York to enforce a naval blockade on Iran, to prevent Iranian oil from reaching world markets.
Will this be costly? You bet. Oil could reach $100 a barrel, or even more. But it will be far, far cheaper than the alternative, which is an Iranian nuclear warhead launched on Israel or handed to a terrorist group, massive Israeli strikes on Iran, and much more.
Beyond this, it is time that we face facts. This regime is not going to change its behavior, so we must help Iranians to change the regime.
Make no mistake: the mullahs in Tehran, and their messianic alter boy, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will perceive a strong, declarative statement of this new policy as a declaration of war. And when that happens, they will be wondering why it's taken us twenty-six years to wake up.
After all, they declared war on the Great Satan (the United States) and the Little Satan (Israel) in 1979, and have never stopped waging that war ever since, even if it has been at times a war by other means.
The Iranian regime's countdown clock to nuclear capability stands at just a few seconds to midnight. We don't have much time to get this right.
Copyrightę2006, Kenneth R. Timmerman