Can the U.S. Defuse Iran?

The White House can't seem to make up its mind about Iran's nuclear program

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George W. Bush has staked his presidency on his reputation as a straight shooter, the kind of leader who presents a clear, decisive message to the nation's adversaries in the war on terrorism. But as the U.S. tries to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, the White House can't seem to make up its mind. First the President said he could not rule out future military action against Iran. Then Vice President Dick Cheney, just hours before the Inauguration, told radio host Don Imus that "the Israelis might well decide to act [militarily] first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterward."

The intrigue deepened last week. In his State of the Union address, Bush cheered hawks pushing for regime change in Tehran, declaring that "as [Iranians] stand for your own liberty, America stands with you." But in the same breath, he offered something to the pro-diplomacy camp, stating that "we are working with European allies" who are at the negotiating table with Iran. Two days later, as she began her first trip as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice said, "The Iranian regime's human-rights behavior is something to be loathed." But then she stressed that "the question [of attacking Iran] is simply not on the agenda." Really? Well, at least not "at this point."

Confused? That could be the intended effect, part of a psychological game to keep the Iranians off balance. The problem is that the Iranians--who deny they are pursuing nuclear weapons and insist that they have a sovereign right to enrich uranium for peaceful, civilian purposes--seem quite adept at playing their own games.

As it drags out the third round of negotiations with Britain, France and Germany with no hint of a resolution, Iran is doing little to build confidence in its good intentions. The country's top nuclear negotiator, Hossein Moussavian, reiterated late last month Tehran's refusal to agree to a permanent cessation of its uranium-enrichment program. Meanwhile, the IAEA has discovered that despite its agreement to temporarily suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment, Iran was continuing to do maintenance work on a uranium-enrichment plant in southern Iran. At the same time, the Iranians have allegedly finished designing a prototype of a detonator for a nuclear bomb, according to an opposition group based in Paris. Taking their cue from North Korea, the Iranians have seen "that you can extend a negotiating process and still build nukes," says Bruno Tertrais, senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

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