Bush Prepares a Messy Iran Handoff

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Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty

A general view shows the building housing the reactor at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in the Iranian port town of Bushehr, south of Tehran.

The news this week that A. Q. Khan's now-defunct international nuclear smuggling network once possessed blueprints for advanced nuclear warheads — and could have sold them to Iran — gave new urgency to Washington's stalled efforts to halt Tehran's pursuit of nuclear capability. But with only seven months left of his presidency, George W. Bush has few options — and none of them is likely to work. "He's kind of stuck," says Robert Einhorn, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bush could launch a military attack aimed at Iran's nuclear facilities, but that would most likely be politically untenable — and even then would not be assured of success, given the record of U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in the region. He can try to build support for tougher economic sanctions against Iran, as he did in Europe last week, but with oil at $140 a barrel and Russia and China blocking truly effective penalties, what does Iran care? Lastly, he can play Crazy Cowboy, rattling the sabers in the hope of bluffing the Iranians into giving up their nuclear ambitions for fear of being attacked — but with his credibility low and the mullahs' confidence high, that's a long shot at best.

As a result, Bush is unable to bring the standoff to a conclusion, and is instead reduced to setting the stage for the next President by trying to build an international consensus for action against Iran. But even that course has drawn criticism, thanks in part to the President's history in the region and the politics of the campaign season. Critics on the left are calling for a new diplomatic initiative that they know Bush lacks the credibility to deliver. Conservative hawks insist that the best gift Bush can give his successor is a decisive military strike. "We've long passed the point where sanctions can work, so you're pushed in the direction of a targeted use of military force," says John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and now with the American Enterprise Institute.

Bush, for his part, has concentrated on diplomacy, but of the coercive variety — not engaging with Iran, but rallying other countries to raise pressure on Tehran. Last week he scored a minor victory when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown committed Britain to support U.S.-initiated financial sanctions against Iran, including freezing the assets of Iran's largest bank. Elsewhere, he's mustered little more than an increase in public expressions of concern by European and Middle Eastern allies. The problem is that the Bush Administration has little diplomatic capital to leverage against Iran. "It's going to take a new Administration to do it," says the CSIS's Einhorn.

The Administration has, however, initiated a less conventional long-term move that has gone largely unnoticed. On the sidelines of his trip to the Middle East in May, President Bush signed a nuclear technology-sharing deal with Saudi Arabia, similar to ones signed earlier with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. In exchange for nuclear know-how provided by the U.S., the Arabs agree not to produce or reprocess their own nuclear fuel, but to import and export all nuclear material under IAEA controls.

The idea of the U.S. helping to facilitate the expanded use of nuclear technology in the Middle East might seem counterproductive, but with more than a dozen countries in the region seeking nuclear technology, the Bush Administration is wisely seeking to set a regional standard for good behavior rather than trying to stop the inevitable. "It's a way of getting Iran's neighbors to pursue nuclear energy safely," says Einhorn. And the mechanism it promotes may be one with which Iran can be encouraged to comply.

But such a small step in a long-term plan for dealing with Iran is unlikely to satisfy those demanding that Bush take more urgent action. "He should start the process of negotiations," argues Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, citing the precedent of the late-starting diplomatic initiatives with the Soviet Union by the Reagan and George H. W. Bush Administrations. In this case, though, it's not clear how direct talks with Iran initiated by President Bush would help his successor. On the right, there's push for military action between November and January — after the election but before Bush leaves office. "If he's going to do it at all it's going to be be during the post-election period," says AEI's Bolton. But even Bolton admits that's a long shot. More likely, Bush will just hand the problem off with best wishes to his successor.