Testing Times for Tehran

Unless Washington and Tehran can find a common language, the Iranian nuclear nightmare inches closer day by day

16 showdown (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
16 showdown (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
Extract from the cover story of Issue 15. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. In early October, French government officials in Paris received a highly sensitive memo from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna suggesting that Iran could have just under 3,000 uranium enriching centrifuges operating in tandem at its nuclear plant in Natanz by the end of the month. A translation of the memo, seen by The Jerusalem Report, referred to "18 interlinked cascades" of 164 centrifuges in each, making a grand total of 2,952. Western experts say 3,000 centrifuge machines running smoothly for long periods at supersonic speeds could enrich enough uranium for the manufacture of a nuclear bomb within a year. The numbers in the Paris memo seemed to confirm claims in early September by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iran "was running more than 3,000 centrifuges and installing more every week." They also seemed to tally with the official quarterly report issued by the IAEA on August 30: It said Iran was running 2,000 centrifuges as of August 18, with 650 in various stages of installation and testing; then, on a second visit to Natanz on September 3, IAEA inspectors found another 325 being hooked up, for a total of 2,975. But the numbers were misleading. In fact, there seemed to be a serious technological hitch. The IAEA experts found that the initial 2,000 centrifuges were operating way below capacity, and, at that rate, would not be able to produce anything like the quantities of enriched uranium needed for a bomb. Western experts are divided over the significance of the data. Some say the Iranians may be deliberately masking technological mastery to avert aggressive intervention by the United States and its allies. Others maintain that there is genuine evidence of a major technological block and that, for the time being, the Iranians are stuck. But all agree on the bottom line: Iran is trying desperately to crack the process of enriching uranium on an "industrial scale," and that, as soon as it does, it will be able to make nuclear weapons. Speaking to a Jewish audience in London on October 23, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave his take on Ahmadinejad's technological boasting: Iranian claims about being close to the point of no return in mastering uranium enrichment, he suggested, were actually designed to convince the West that there was no longer any point in trying to deter them, because they were within touching distance of their goal; the actual facts on the ground, however, indicated that they were exaggerated. "They are not as far away as we would have liked, but also not as close as they are trying to portray. Therefore, there is an essential need now to force them to pay the kind of price that will make them change their stance," he declared. Olmert did not go to London to rally the Zionists. In mid-October, the prime minister found the situation worrying enough to launch a high profile diplomatic drive for tougher economic sanctions on Iran. Up till then, the government had been content to play a back room role, so that the Iranian nuclear issue would not seem to be primarily an Israeli problem. Now, in a major policy reversal, Olmert made lightning visits to Moscow, Paris and London, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni flew to Beijing, in a bid to convince Russia, France, Britain and China, all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, of the urgent need to impose tougher economic sanctions on Iran before it was too late and the only remaining option for preventing it from going nuclear would be military force. Israeli officials say Olmert launched his initiative out of a sense of growing fatigue and loss of direction in the international community. In late March, the Council had voted on a second round of economic sanctions and given Iran 60 days to freeze its enrichment program or face harsher measures. Instead, Iran flaunted its enrichment efforts, with Ahmadinejad claiming in April to have reached industrial capacity. But the international community failed to follow through with new sanctions. Three key countries, Russia, China and Germany, for a mix of geopolitical and economic reasons, refused to cooperate. In late summer the IAEA stepped in, in an attempt to defuse the situation. IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei urged the Iranians to clarify a list of enrichment issues to avert further sanctions. But this merely raised Israeli and American concerns. Analysts in both countries reported that ElBaradei was soft-pedaling and simply allowing the Iranians to buy time. That led U.S. President George Bush to sound his apocalyptic warning on October 17 of a possible World War III unless the international community got serious about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons' technology. "If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," he declared dramatically. In the wake of the Bush statement, Israel launched its whirlwind diplomatic campaign. The message: A recent spate of resignations of top government and economic officials in Tehran showed that sanctions were having an effect, and tightening the screws on Iran would almost certainly heighten domestic pressure for change in its nuclear policy. Indeed, backing off now could be counterproductive and actually increase the chances of war, the Israeli leaders argued. The American and Israeli warnings helped concentrate the minds. In early November, representatives of the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany met in London to discuss a third set of U.N. sanctions on Iran. They agreed that their decision would depend on the substance of two reports on Iran's uranium enrichment program due in mid-November, one by ElBaradei and the other by the EU's Foreign Policy Chief, Javier Solana. If the reports proved unsatisfactory, the six countries would work together to impose sharper, mandatory, U.N.-approved sanctions. November is set to be a key month in the showdown between the international community and Iran. On the face of it, the major players would seem to have a clear common interest that Iran not go nuclear. But the situation is far more complex and they may not all be prepared to pay the price of stopping it. Geopolitical rivalry between the United States and President Vladimir Putin's increasingly assertive Russia raises questions about Moscow's intentions. Germany and China, in particular, have huge economic stakes in Iran and the extent to which they will be prepared to approve and enforce sanctions is not clear. Rising oil prices are another factor. Will excessive economic pressure on Iran send them spiraling further out of control? On the other hand, the consequences for Israel, the Middle East and the world as a whole of a nuclear Iran are frightening: It would provide radical Islamists with far-reaching hegemonic ambitions with an umbrella for widespread terror, destabilization and extortion, not to speak of a possible nuclear Armageddon. In the autumn of 2007, the U.S. ratcheted up the rhetoric of war over the Iranian nuclear issue and together with Israel reemphasized the urgency for resolute diplomacy to prevent it. But even as the international community moved to act amid initial signs of dissent over nuclear policy in Tehran, Western and Israeli analysts estimated that an American-led war with Iran before Bush ends his term of office in January 2009 is still very much on the table - with all the consequences that would have for Israel. To prevent war, senior Israeli officials say there is a need for what they call "muscular diplomacy." By this they mean a strong set of economic sanctions backed up by a tacit threat of war. They believe Israel has been able to get this message across. "The coalition of countries that believes it is very important to take steps is now very wide," a senior foreign ministry official told The Report. The Israeli diplomatic effort is focusing on getting two parallel sets of sanctions into place: Multilateral sanctions imposed through the U.N. and bilateral boycotting initiatives taken by individual states. Israeli officials see important progress on both levels. "We have had two unanimous sanctions resolutions by the Security Council and there's no reason now why there shouldn't be a third," the official said. "We also welcome economic steps that countries like the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia and the Europeans are adopting on their own, above and beyond the U.N. measures." The Israelis maintain that there are clear signs that muscular diplomacy is working. They point to articles in the Iranian press criticizing the regime and criticism within the regime of Ahmadinejad's aggressive nuclear posturing. "The aim is for these cracks to be widened. Iran is not North Korea. It has institutions and civil society. Once the Iranian elite understand that it is impossible to have business as usual with the international community, we believe there can be a change in policy," the official declared. The prime minister's whirlwind diplomacy has not been without its critics, especially on the right. The main argument has been that the high profile display of Israeli concern fuels an exaggerated impression of Israel's security as a major determinant of U.S. policy - in other words, that the U.S. may seem to be getting into a war with Iran for Israel's sake. "It is extremely important for Israeli diplomacy to stress that Iran is acquiring capabilities to strike well beyond Israel, well into the heart of Europe and even into the United States," says Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a Jerusalem-based right-wing think tank. "Last year Iran procured the BM-25 missile from North Korea, which comes in two variants of 2,500 and 3,500 kilometers. The longer-range missile could reach as far as France. According to the U.S. Missile Defense Organization, Iran should be able to develop a multi-stage rocket that would give it the ability to strike the U.S. by the year 2015. Indeed, Bush has justified the U.S. missile defense facility that he is seeking to deploy in Eastern Europe by making reference to the future Iranian missile threat," says Gold, a former ambassador to the U.N. and an expert on radical Islam. Threat perception aside, it is clear that the key to the Iranian predicament lies in Washington. It is the Americans who are leading the multilateral and bilateral sanctions efforts and it is they who down the road will have to take the hard decisions on war or peace. In late October, as part of its new get tough policy, the Bush Administration unilaterally imposed another set of sharp economic sanctions on Iran. These bar dealings with three Iranian banks, Melli, Mellat and Saderat, or with financial institutions having anything to with the elite Quds division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, now defined as a terrorist organization. "The Revolutionary Guards in Iran are not only terror and army. They are an economic concern," explains Eytan Gilboa, an expert on America at Bar-Ilan University's BESA Center for Strategic Studies. "They control about 50-60 percent of the Iranian economy and about 70-80 percent of the oil fields. That's why the Americans included them in the sanctions." Gilboa believes the new sanctions will create serous problems for Iran. "Bush is saying to a wide range of private companies that 'you can't do business with Iran and with us. Choose.' He expects many companies will stop trading with Iran, and that those that don't will hike their prices, because they will be operating virtually without competition," Gilboa maintains. Most Israeli analysts believe Bush would like to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue before the end of his term, preferably without having to go to war. Therefore, with just over a year left in office, he has started intensifying diplomatic efforts, economic pressure and threats of war. "The three are one package. There is no way he can achieve a diplomatic solution without economic and military pressure," says Gilboa. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.