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Iran's Nuclear Program: Crunch Time

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What a surprise!

Iran has been caught in yet another act of deception. Faced with the prospect of being outed by the U.S. in advance of talks in Geneva on October 1, Tehran's leaders informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of a second uranium enrichment facility.

Oops, you mean we hadn't told you, the Iranians all but said. We were sure we had. Must have been an unforgivable oversight on the part of a junior clerk. Anyway, nothing to be concerned about. It's only an effort on our part to pursue peaceful nuclear energy for that eventual day -- which, given our meager oil and gas reserves, is just a century or two away -- when we might, just might, need to consider alternatives.

Seems oddly fitting that the facility is located near the holy city of Qom, presumably allowing those in the know to marry science and prayer in their quest for nuclear advances.


Watch AJC's new short film, "Iran: This is the Button"

Of course, there's a pattern here. In 2002, the first enrichment facility, in Natanz, was revealed to the world not by the Iranian government, but by opposition groups that clandestinely collected data and shared it with the world.

Then there was the Iranian effort to design a nuclear warhead, only to be discovered in 2007, as reported in the New York Times, after U.S. intelligence agencies penetrated Iranian computer networks.

That would be bad enough, but it gets still worse.

For one thing, the regime is also pursuing ballistic missile technology. Longer range, more precise, multiple-stage, solid-fuel rockets have been on display, with hints of more surprises to come. Indeed, Voice of America carried a story on September 28 that "Iran says it has successfully tested two long-range missiles that defense analysts say could hit Israel and southern Europe." Iran may detest Israel (and, no less, nearby Sunni-dominated regimes), but why the need to reach Europe? Hmm.

And for another, the Iranian leadership, worrisome enough with its messianic belief in hastening the coming of the Hidden Imam and reaching the End of Days, is on the ropes from revelations of fraud and state violence in connection with the June elections. Nothing like the possibility of cooking up a little foreign distraction to try to unite the people and divert attention from the regime's true nature.

All of which brings us to how to deal with the challenge.

We know what doesn't work, which is of some help, if little comfort.

Six years ago, the European Union, led by Britain, France, and Germany, undertook to negotiate with Iran, based on the principle of "double suspension." If Iran suspended its enrichment activity, sanctions would be suspended.

The verdict on that approach has long been in -- unmitigated failure. Not only did Iran not go along, but, in the ensuing years, it went from a few dozen centrifuges spinning uranium to several thousand, all the while masterfully keeping the Europeans at the table and believing that progress was possible. It is now believed that Iran has enough low enriched uranium from which to produce two nuclear bombs.

Iran has to be the gold medalist in outsitting -- and outwitting -- negotiating partners.

As an Arab diplomat said, watch how Iranians eat pistachio nuts as a metaphor for their approach. While others shovel down the nuts, an Iranian will take each one, painstakingly study it, clean it, and only then pop it in his mouth and savor it. The moral: Unless Iran really feels the heat, you won't be able to outlast an Iranian at the bargaining table.

Some have suggested that if only Washington would drop its belligerent tone and extend an olive branch, Iran would respond in kind. Well, as of January 20, 2009, that's exactly what the U.S. has done, offering serious "engagement" to Tehran -- only to be met by the disclosure of the second enrichment facility, new ballistic missile tests, arrests and killings of protesters, and defiant language from Iranian leaders about their determination to press ahead on the nuclear front.

The moment of truth is at hand.

If Iran doesn't come clean on its nuclear activities, allow full and unfettered inspections, and suspend its enrichment program, all unlikely prospects, then will the key countries have the will to ratchet up significantly the pressure in such important spheres to Iran as energy, banking, and transportation? The U.S. appears ready to lead. Will others follow?

Will China and Russia stop carrying the water for Iran at the UN Security Council, arguing for more time as a seeming antidote in and of itself, and agree to truly toughened sanctions which send the message that Iran "can't have its yellow cake and eat it, too"?

Russian President Medvedev recently said more sanctions may be "inevitable," but what he has in mind remains to be seen. And will Moscow reconsider its arms sales to Iran, which have only emboldened the Iranians in their defiant stance?

Will the EU collectively get serious about tough sanctions of its own that say no to business as usual with Tehran? In certain key spheres, Europe currently provides Iran with products, services, and technologies it can't obtain elsewhere.

Will Iranian leaders continue to be welcomed in world capitals, even as they flaunt binding UN resolutions already adopted and IAEA guidelines? Ankara, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, and New Delhi are among those that have rolled out the red carpet for Ahmadinejad, with Brasilia reportedly waiting in the wings.

And how many more hate-filled diatribes will Ahmadinejad give in UN forums, like he did in April in Geneva and September in New York, as too many delegates remained in their seats, while only a minority, a principled one at that, absented themselves or walked out in protest?

Some argue that to press for a steely response from the international community is to prepare for war. Wrong. It's precisely the opposite.

The best way to avoid a military showdown with Iran is to end the unseemly pandering and infinite patience shown toward Tehran. Even as the extended hand should, indeed, remain available, the cost of refusal must be upped dramatically -- before it's too late. And yes, Iran is vulnerable. Its economy is shaky, domestic fissures have been revealed, and the country is far from being self-sufficient.

A toughened approach may not be a sure-fire recipe for success. But, then again, waiting, hoping, blustering, and dispensing an occasional slap on the wrist -- the core elements of the global strategy to date -- haven't exactly done the trick, either.

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