What's Behind Iran's Nuclear Bluster

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As representatives of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members, plus Germany, met Tuesday in Paris to discuss a response to Iran's failure to heed the council's nuclear demands, Iran was up to its usual saber-rattling. Echoing the recent defiant statements of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of the country's top military leaders, Rear Admiral Mohammed Ibrahim Dehqani, said that Israel would be the first target of military retaliation if the U.S. chose to attack. But despite such fiery rhetoric, Iran may well have a craftier diplomatic strategy up its sleeve.

Iran is unlikely, after all, to maintain a static posture of defiance while Washington seeks to build pressure for international action. Instead, it is likely to accelerate its own diplomatic efforts — “playing games,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it on Sunday, after Iran offered to restore the IAEA's right to conduct snap inspections at sites not designated as part of the nuclear program, which would give the watchdog the ability to follow intelligence leads on suspected illegal nuclear activity. But "playing games" may actually be effective, for if Iran uses the deadlock to advance new compromise proposals of its own, differences between the U.S. and some of its allies could be exacerbated.

At the meeting in Paris, U.S. officials made clear that they want a binding Security Council resolution forcing Iran to desist from enriching uranium under penalty of sanctions or even military action. But Iran is banking on Russia and China to nix any move towards sanctions, and Moscow and Beijing may even be inclined to prevent the council from adopting a Chapter VII resolution — one that couches concerns over Iran's nuclear activities as a threat to global security, and therefore makes compliance mandatory. Russia insists that the only basis for any Security Council action against Iran would be proof that it is pursuing a nuclear weapon — and right now, despite unanswered questions, the IAEA has offered neither proof nor even the accusation that this is the case.

The U.S. and Europeans certainly suspect the Iranians of using a civilian energy program as cover to pursue nuclear weapons, and Washington wants the U.N. to send Iran a clear message that its defiance will not be tolerated. But the continuing spike in world oil prices underscores the reason why enthusiasm for punitive action may be limited even among some U.S. allies. And there are growing differences between the U.S. and some of its European partners over what a diplomatic solution might entail — an emerging consensus in European policy circles, as well as among self-styled “realists” on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, holds that a diplomatic solution to the crisis requires that the U.S. abandon its refusal to negotiate directly with Tehran.

Germany, for example, has made clear that a diplomatic solution will require not only that the U.S. talk directly with Iran, but also that the actions threatened for Iran's defiance be complemented by new incentives offered for compliance. Most importantly, that would include the U.S. offering Iran security guarantees — in other words, to curb its nuclear program, the Bush Administration would effectively have to promise not to attack the current regime in Tehran. Until now, that option has been unacceptable to those in the Bush Administration who advocate “regime change” in Tehran. Asked to comment on the German proposal, the U.S. representative at the Paris talks, Deputy Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, was quoted as saying that isolation, not engagement, was the only acceptable option. To the Bush Administration, perhaps, but ruling out engagement with Tehran could, if the Iranians play the diplomatic game right, eventually leave the U.S. isolated.

Despite the bluster of its president, Iran's rulers appear inclined to echo the call for direct talks, having reportedly made a number of discreet approaches and also public statements expressing a willingness to negotiate. Senior former State Department and NSC officials have indicated that Tehran sought, in a message relayed via Swiss diplomats, to initiate talks on all matters of concern to Washington, with the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in mid-2003, but were rebuffed by Bush Administration hawks. Iranian leaders also reportedly made a similar call for secret negotiations on all matters of concern when Iraq's President Jalal Talabani late last year conveyed a U.S. proposal for talks specifically on Iraq. More recently, a number of former NATO foreign ministers who have recently visited Iraq have reported that "influential Iranian leaders" had expressed the desire to hold direct talks with Washington — last week even the bellicose President Ahmadinejad, during a press conference, indicated a willingness to negotiate with the U.S. if Iranian preconditions, which he did not specify, were met.

Iran's leaders insist that their right to peaceful nuclear activity, including uranium enrichment, be respected. But that demand may translate into a renewed push for a compromise in which Iran accepts that its reactor fuel be enriched in Russia but is allowed to keep a small-scale facility under IAEA supervision for enrichment research purposes. The U.S. flatly rejected such a proposal in March (on the grounds that it would allow Iran to gain important nuclear know-how), but if the alternative is confrontation, it may begin to look more appealing to some of its allies. Both Germany and Russia previously hinted they could support such a plan. And as U.S. allies find themselves caught uncomfortably between Iran's defiance and a U.S. strategy that looks destined to end in confrontation, Tehran may see the advantage in launching diplomatic initiatives of its own.