The U.S.-Iranian Triangle
By ROGER COHEN
NEW YORK — France and Germany fought three wars in 70 years before the bright idea dawned of enfolding their problem into something larger: the European Union. The United States and Iran have not gone to war but have a relationship of psychotic mistrust. The answer can only be the same: Broaden the context.
The revelation that Iran has built a second uranium enrichment plant in secrecy did not change the nuclear equation if that’s measured by the country’s ability to produce a bomb. No uranium has entered the facility. Iran’s eventual capacity to produce weapons-grade fissile material, let alone deliver it, is unaffected.
What has changed is the psychology of the Iranian nuclear program. Mistrust, already deep, is now fathomless.
With an enrichment facility at Natanz able to accommodate 54,000 centrifuges (just over 8,000 are installed), and its single nuclear power plant still in stop-go mode, there do not appear to be 54,000 reasons for Iran to burrow into a mountain near the holy city of Qum to install 3,000 more.
Tehran wants a military nuclear option even if it’s nervous — and hesitant — about the reality.
The Qum-nuclear twinning reveals the Iranian mindset: The enrichment program has attained sacred status as a symbol of Iranian independence — comparable to oil’s nationalization in the 1950s.
(Iran will argue its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency only required it to give notification of the new facility 180 days before introducing nuclear material. Western nations will contest that. The technicalities are debatable — and irrelevant. This is about trust betrayed by Tehran.)
The effect of Natanz-Qum was to make new sanctions more likely sooner. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France spoke of imposing them in December, absent an “in-depth change.” President Obama — who likes to leave hawkishness to Europeans — avoided the “s” word but did his best resolute thing.
More significant than the words, however, were the no-shows. Iran would have sat bolt upright had Obama been flanked by the leaders of Germany, Russia and China. Those three countries are principal sources of Iran’s trade.
Chancellor Angela Merkel could not find time (although she “associated” herself with Obama.) Russia expressed “serious concern.” China mumbled about “dialogue.” This was less a line in the sand than a faint squiggle.
I’ve said this before: Sanctions won’t work. Ray Takeyh, who worked on Iran with Dennis Ross at the State Department before losing his job last month and returning to the Council on Foreign Relations, told me that “sanctions are the feel-good option.”
Yes, it feels good to do something, but it doesn’t necessarily help. In this case, sanctions won’t for four reasons.
One: Iran is inured to sanctions after years of living with them and has in Dubai a sure-fire conduit for goods at a manageable surtax. Two: Russia and China will never pay more than lip-service to sanctions. Three: You don’t bring down a quasi-holy symbol — nuclear power — by cutting off gasoline sales. Four: sanctions feed the persecution complex on which the Iranian government thrives.
A senior German Foreign Ministry official last week told an American Council on Germany delegation: “The efficiency of sanctions is not really discussed because if you do, you are left with only two options — a military strike or living with a nuclear Iran — and nobody wants to go there. So the answer is: Let’s impose further sanctions! It’s a dishonest debate.”
Dishonesty is a staple of Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran has dissembled. Israel, which introduced nuclear ambiguity in the region, has — repetitively — predicted an Iranian bomb is just a few years away since the early 1990s. It still is some years off in the view of U.S. intelligence.
The choice is indeed between a military strike and living with a nuclear Iran. But what is a “nuclear Iran?” Is it an Iran that’s nuclear-armed — a very dangerous development — or an Iran with an I.A.E.A,-monitored enrichment facility?
I believe monitored enrichment on Iranian soil in the name of what Obama called Iran’s “right to peaceful nuclear power” remains a possible basis for an agreement that blocks weaponization. Zero enrichment is by now a non-starter.
For fruitless sanctions to be avoided, the mantra of William Burns, the U.S. under secretary for political affairs who will attend multilateral talks with Iran starting Thursday, must be: “Widen the canvas.”
The Iranian government is weak. Its disarray was again evident last week; it actually feels threatened by George Soros. Significant factions now view an American breakthrough as needed. They have a favorable view of Burns.
Burns must seek to open a parallel bilateral U.S.-Iran negotiation covering at least these areas: Afghanistan and Iraq (where interests often converge); Hezbollah and Hamas (where they do not); human rights; blocked Iranian assets; diplomatic relations; regional security arrangements; drugs; the fight against Al Qaeda; visas and travel.
Isolated, nuclear negotiations will fail. Integrated, they may not. Iran’s sense of humiliation is rooted in its America complex; its nuclear program is above all about the restoration of pride. Settle the complex to contain the program. Triangulate. Think broad. Think E.U., not Versailles.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/28/opinion/28iht-edcohen.html?_r=1&hp&ex=&ei=&partner=