Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad thinks he has our number. He is convinced he can continue
to flout a U.N. Security Council demand that Iran verifiably suspend
its uranium enrichment operations, and get the Europeans, the
Russians and the Chinese to convince us to continue talking.
Last Tuesday, at the very moment European negotiator Javier Solana was trying to jawbone the Iranians in Tehran, Iran told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it had restarted enrichment.
Let's be very clear about this. Mr. Solana had been charged with delivering an ultimatum from the Permanent Five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, and the Iranians gave an immediate answer: No.
The choice Mr. Solana delivered to the Iranian regime went like this: You must immediately suspend in a verifiable manner all uranium enrichment activities, and if you do here is a list of the good things we will do for you. If you refuse, however, I have a second list, which details all the pain we intend to inflict on your regime.
Mr. Solana emerged from the talks with Iran's top negotiator, Ali Larijanai, saying he was "optimistic." He repeated that on Wednesday after reporting to French President Jacques Chirac in Paris. Iran gave its answer; but no one seemed to be listening.
The indifference of the West must have been frustrating to Mr. Ahmadinejad, because on Thursday he made his rejection of the Western offer clear.
Speaking to a crowd in Qazvin, home of one of Iran's previously secret nuclear weapons research sites, Mr. Ahmadinejad reiterated his longstanding insistence Iran would never give up its "definite rights" to uranium enrichment. "If they think they can threaten and hold a stick over Iran's head and offer negotiations at the same time, they should know the Iranian nation will definitely reject such an atmosphere," he said.
That is not coded diplomatic language, nor subject to interpretation. The Iranians have consistently used the same terms whenever they have flouted the International Atomic Energy Agency or the U.N. Security Council over uranium enrichment. It is their right, they insist; therefore, no one can demand that they give it up, even temporarily.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack has refused to comment on the Iranian moves, or on Mr. Ahmadinejad's statements.
He should not be faulted personally. After all, he is just a spokesman, not a policymaker.
But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice needs to step up to the plate, and make clear -- yet again -- that the Six Power offer to Iran is not a negotiating position, or an opening ante. It is exactly what she said it was when she first announced it on May 31. It's a choice that the Iranians must make. And now they have made it.
The worst possible outcome of the nuclear showdown with Iran would be for the West to ignore the Islamic Republic leaders when they clearly announce their choice. It's called the slippery slope. Take one step down that road, and it's a quick bone-crushing ride down the chute to failure. And in this case, failure means a nuclear-armed Iran.
In making their offer to Iran, the Great Powers did not do the right thing, or the moral thing: provide massive assistance to pro-democracy forces in Iran; the bus-drivers, the students, the women, the teachers and the young people who repeatedly take to the streets in defiance of club-wielding police and paramilitary hooligans.
When things really get rough, as they did last August in the town of Saqqez in northwestern Iran, the regime will not hesitate to call out helicopter gunships to mow down crowds of protesters. And yet, the protesters keep coming.
The moral thing would have been to provide the protesters and their leaders with massive assistance in their efforts to get rid of this regime.
It also would have been the most effective threat to have included on the list of "or else" that Mr. Solana was supposed to have delivered in Tehran, since outside help for pro-democracy forces is the one thing this regime truly fears.
Mr. Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics know far better than Western chancelleries just how unpopular and vulnerable they truly are. Although the regime and its supporters still insist voters turned out "massively" to support his election last year, opposition groups claim Iranian voters massively boycotted the poll.
TV footage of large crowds, fed by state-run television to foreign networks, turned out to have been taken during previous elections, according to Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, a human rights activist and journalist who translated the old election posters in the background.
Many polling places in Tehran happened to be at places where the Tehran municipality had installed video traffic cameras, which can be viewed on the Internet. I monitored a half-dozen of them on election day, and saw hardly a person enter the polls.
If the Great Powers are not yet ready to do the moral thing and support the legitimate aspiration to freedom of the Iranian people, then the very least they can do is hold firm on the conditions of the offer Mr. Solana made.
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