Why Iran Is Giving The West The Willies

What should the West do about Iran's nuclear program? That issue will be one of the hot foreign policy questions of September, when the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency meet to discuss the best way to make sure Tehran does not build the bomb. The Iranians are talking tough: On July 31 they announced they would resume building the centrifuges that can enrich uranium to weapons-grade strength. Iran says it's for peaceful purposes, but the Europeans, who thought they had brokered a deal to stop Iran's march to nuclear power status, are outraged.

So are the Americans. And the Israelis. In early August, President George W. Bush and his National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said they would demand U.N.-imposed sanctions if Iran persists. Israel has set up a committee headed by the director of Mossad to monitor Iran's nuclear program, which Jerusalem thinks could yield a bomb by 2007, two years ahead of current estimates. Some Knesset members say Israel might eventually need to consider a surgical strike, like the one that took out Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. Even the Arabs are uneasy. "Iranian hegemony in the Middle East is feared in many quarters," says Ephraim Kam, a Tel Aviv University strategic expert.

But Iran isn't necessarily worried about any threats. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, Iranian leaders feared Tehran would be the next candidate for regime change. But the Pentagon is so tied down in Iraq that the odds of a military operation to oust the mullahs are near zero. The U.S. "is not going to be in a position to leverage or threaten anyone," says Jon Wolfsthal, an arms-proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. U.N. sanctions might be vetoed by China or Russia, two of Iran's nuclear suppliers. And Iran has probably scattered its nuclear sites across its vast and mountainous terrain to thwart any Israeli attack.

Interwoven interests

Finally, Iran is not a collapsed state like North Korea, whose only bargaining chip is its nuclear menace. Iran's oil production is a vital part of the world energy picture, and it has extensive commercial relations with Europe. Europe's governments may denounce Tehran for its nuclear ambitions, but at the same time Renault and Volkswagen have signed large deals with local companies. Amir Mohebian, an editor of Resalat, a conservative Tehran daily, believes that neither Europe nor the U.S. wants to cut off dialogue with the Iranian government. "The Iranians feel they're on a roll," says Steven Everts, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London.

That confidence, adds Everts, could prove misplaced. He thinks the West will be forced to respond with stiff sanctions if Iran builds a bomb. Is there a way out, now that both the Europeans' diplomatic approach and the Americans' hard-nosed tack have failed? One option, analysts say, is for them to switch roles, with Europe playing the bad cop by advocating sanctions and the U.S. holding out the carrot of diplomatic relations in exchange for ending the nuke program. If Washington shows that kind of flexibility, "it increases the chances of Europe supporting a more robust course of measures later," says Everts. That's the hope. But success is hardly assured.

By Stan Crock in Washington and Neal Sandler in Jerusalem, with Laura Cohn in London, and Babak Pirouz in Tehran

Edited by Michael S. Serrill

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