Why the Tough Talk on Iran?

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Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the parliament of Iran.

President Bush must serve up a pretty convincing hamburger: Ever since his Kennebunkport cookout with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, the French have been rattling sabers at Iran with a ferocity that must please even the most Francophobe hawks within the Administration.

Recent tough talk by Sarkozy was ratcheted up last weekend by his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who urged the world to prepare for war against Iran. He later insisted that he meant simply that war was the worst possible outcome but that the failure of diplomatic pressure to dissuade Iran from enriching uranium would make war inevitable. To underscore the point, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon added Monday, "The Iranians must understand that tension has reached an extreme point ... in the relationship [with] its neighbors."

France, of course, is not one of Iran's neighbors, and most of those countries would read the French comments as part of an effort to fabricate a sense of crisis over Iran's nuclear program. Indeed, even as Fillon spoke, the Gulf Cooperation Council — which includes such key U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait — was moving to open trade talks with Tehran despite U.S. calls for Iranís isolation. And Egypt was hosting a high-level Iranian diplomatic delegation in talks aimed at normalizing relations, rejecting talk of confrontation and instead demanding a peaceful solution "through negotiations which guarantee the Iranian right to a peaceful nuclear program." Similar sentiments have been expressed by a number of Arab countries, wary of Iran's ambitions but even more alarmed by the consequences of any U.S. attack on the Islamic Republic. The governments of Iraq and Afghanistan have warm, cooperative ties with Tehran, while Russia continues to work on Iranís nuclear program and resists Western efforts to ratchet up U.N. pressure.

In fact, the only one of Iran's neighbors for whom it may be true, as the French PM suggests, that tensions have reached "an extreme point," is the United States — a neighbor by virtue of its presence in Iraq. Despite offering little evidence to back the claim, the Administration now routinely claims Iran is destabilizing Iraq and waging a proxy war on U.S. forces there. In fact, President Bush proclaims containing Iran as one of the strategic rationales for staying in Iraq. And the hawkish political faction inside and outside of the Administration that campaigned for war in Iraq are once again beating the drum for blasting Iran, warning that diplomatic efforts to deter Iran from enriching uranium are going nowhere.

The French statements are warning the world that a clock is ticking on the Iran "crisis," although the countdown is on the remaining 16 months of President Bush's tenure rather than anything happening during that time in Iran's nuclear program, which remains a number of years away from the capability of building a bomb. A mounting tide of reports has suggested that President Bush does not want to leave office without having prevented Iran from attaining the means to build nuclear weapons — and if that outcome cannot be achieved through diplomatic pressure, the reports suggest, then he is prepared to consider military action.

Even if the purpose of French alarmism and U.S. media leaks is simply to sweat the Iranians into backing down, it runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Iranians tend to harden their positions in response to threats, and the sense of urgency being engendered by the U.S. and its closest allies is not shared by the international community — the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, has found no evidence of a covert nuclear weapons program in Iran, and has reached an agreement with Tehran to address a number of specific concerns over aspects of Iran's nuclear activity at the center of the standoff. That agreement has been pilloried in the U.S., and IAEA chief Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei has come under attack, not least from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who told him to to butt out after he criticized the war talk from Western officials. But, having been vindicated in his prewar claim that Saddam had no nuclear weapons program, ElBaradei is unlikely to back off. "I would hope that everybody would have gotten the lesson after the Iraq situation, where 700,000 innocent civilians have lost their lives on the suspicion that a country has nuclear weapons," he said in response to earlier criticism.

Clearly, the U.N. process is not going to yield the results desired by the U.S. and its allies any time soon. The latest Iran-IAEA agreement has sharply diminished chances of the U.N. Security Council approving any further sanctions against Iran this fall, and the French call for unilateral European sanctions has been rebuffed by Italy (Iran's largest European trading partner) and sharply criticized by Russia. A deeper problem lies in the fact that the West sees uranium enrichment itself — to which Iran is entitled under the Non-Proliferation Treaty — as unacceptable, because it would give Iran the means to quickly assemble a nuclear weapon if it chose to break from the NPT, as North Korea did. Thus far, Iran has rejected deals offered by the Europeans to forgo its right to enrichment, although talks are ongoing.

Iran's leaders may well be holding out for the sort of "grand bargain" that appears to underlie the recent deal with North Korea, where part of the price for denuclearization was tacit security guarantees for its regime. That's an option the current debate suggests is unlikely to be embraced the Bush Administration in the case of Iran. But if President Bush plans to put a stop to Iran's nuclear program by any means necessary before he leaves office, the sense of crisis will have to be sharply escalated in order to convince a war-weary American public to back a second potentially catastrophic war of choice in the Middle East. At least this time, the French are doing their bit.