Nuclear 'Breakthrough' May Help Iran to Compromise

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Iran's announcement that it has mastered the art of enriching uranium was greeted with a predictable chorus of alarm. But despite expressions of grave concern from Washington and London to Moscow and Beijing, Tehran's nuclear "breakthrough" doesn't necessarily diminish chances for a diplomatic solution. On the contrary, Tehran has long insisted it wants a compromise that both addresses Western concerns and upholds what it says is its "right" to enrich uranium, particularly in a research setting. The latest announcement may well give the Iranians room to show greater flexibility at the bargaining table without appearing to back down.

Iran's defiance of Western demands over its nuclear program is far more popular at home than the regime itself is. But having assured its public that Western efforts to prevent Iran from mastering the fuel cycle have failed, the Iranian leadership may have actually given itself some new room to compromise. The regime reportedly wants a compromise that accepts that Iran's nuclear reactor fuel will be enriched in Russia or elsewhere abroad, but allows it to maintain, under international scrutiny, the small research facility that completed this week's experiment. The U.S. and Europe have flatly rejected that proposal, because they had hoped to deny Iran the means of attaining even the know-how to enrich uranium for fear that this would be used in a covert bomb program. Now, Iran appears to have already achieved that milestone — even though it remains years away from being able to manufacture its own reactor fuel on an industrial scale or create bomb material — which could render that objection moot.

Tehran is also keenly aware of the diplomatic difficulties facing the U.S. in the standoff. Even as they chided Iran for having conducted the latest experiment, Russia and China remain adamantly opposed to even threatening UN sanctions against Iran. And recent reports about U.S. planning for potential military action momentarily turned the conversation from how to deal with Iran's bad behavior to how to restrain the U.S.

The Bush administration's dual objectives of regime-change in Tehran and restraining the current regime from going nuclear also continue to bump up against each other. President Bush rushed to calm speculation over possible military strikes by insisting that the U.S. wants a diplomatic solution, but at the same time he ruled out direct talks with Iran on the nuclear issue — despite such talks being advocated not only by Iran, but also by Washington's closest European allies.

Some analysts have read the leak of hypothetical U.S. military planning on Iran as calculated to spook the Europeans, Russia and China into supporting tougher UN action. Whether or not it has that effect, diplomacy is clearly the only game in town — and both sides are busy trying to shape its outcome to their advantage.