Behind Iran's Nuclear Defiance

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If anybody assumed Iran would blink in its dangerous standoff with the West, they were wrong. Ten days ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted overwhelmingly to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. In response, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a defiant speech last Saturday to tens of thousands of Iranians marking the 27th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Repeating that Iran "will not forgo its irrefutable right" to develop nuclear energy, Ahmadinejad warned that Iran may even withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the IAEA-policed pact defining the rules of peaceful nuclear energy programs. Then, on Ahmadinejad's instructions, Iran resumed uranium enrichment work Tuesday at its Natanz research facility. That's the type of behavior that has the U.S. claiming Iran is intent on secretly developing a nuclear weapon.

So, is Ahmadinejad committing diplomatic suicide, considering how even Russia and China are now showing a degree of solidarity with the American-led pressure on Iran? Ahmadinejad, who came to power in an upset election victory last year, is a hard-liner. But not even moderate Iranian leaders accept Western demands that Iran completely abandon the right, guaranteed under the NPT, to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. After six months in office, Ahmadinejad has concluded that no Iranian compromise will satisfy Washington. By restarting enrichment, says one Tehran analyst, Iran is simply saying that it will not permit the West to determine the timetable for its nuclear development.

Ahmadinejad seems none too worried about U.N. sanctions. As he no doubt sees it, Russia and China are unlikely to go along with such punitive measures, because of their deep economic interests in Iran. The wider international community, he knows, is concerned that a crisis involving Iran could spike oil prices even higher. And he surely calculates a certain advantage to Tehran in relation to Washington right now, created by the foreign policy challenges the Bush Administration faces in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories, where Iran now enjoys influence with key local players.

Still, Ahmadinejad does not determine Iran's foreign policy alone. It is ultimately in the hands of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, which reports to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And despite the Iranian president's defiant posture, the National Security Council has signaled its continuing interest in a negotiated settlement by announcing that an Iranian delegation will visit Moscow next week for talks on a proposed Russian compromise. But with Ahmadinejad turning the nuclear issue into a populist cause, it's far from certain that the more pragmatic heads will prevail.