Let the Games Begin

Tehran isn't cooperating. But Obama must make sure he does not push the Iranians so hard that they unite behind the mullahs.

The latest buzz is that Iran will agree to the UN plan to send most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for processing, after which it will be returned in the form of fuel rods to be used in civilian reactors. However, as with all things related to the Islamic Republic, there will be a catch: Iran, it is reported, wants to send the LEU out of the country in dribs and drabs and simultaneously receive shipments of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for medical purposes. To achieve this alternative plan, Iran will seek to renegotiate the agreement. It is clear that the Iranian leadership is under pressure from within its own inner circles to resist any concessions that give the impression of caving in to the international community. It is especially important that the leadership do not allow the nuclear issue to become yet another complication in their efforts to reestablish their legitimacy, following the crisis of the June 12 elections.

The problem is that both the Iranians and the international community are eager to show there has been some progress towards reconciliation, but neither party can be seen to be weak. In Washington, President Obama faces huge skepticism from Republicans, hawks from his own party, many in the arms-control community, as well as the government of Israel as to the value of the current negotiations. Hardliners believe Iran is stalling for time and that it has no intention of stopping its bomb program. They argue that precisely because there is trouble in Tehran, Obama should play a tough hand. But Obama would be wise not to act precipitously-at least until he can be sure the Europeans will join in imposing new, tougher sanctions on Iran (there is little hope the Russians would agree at this stage).

One chink of light is the fact that on December 1, Yukiya Amano will take over as the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Whatever the virtues of the current director Mohamed ElBaradei may have been, they seem to have vanished once he and his organization were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Diplomats say privately that after this award ElBaradei became insufferably self-righteous. His departure will not be mourned by those who believe that a far more robust role for the IAEA is required. It is obvious that the Iranians have more nuclear facilities hidden away in their large country. These need to be found, inspected and, if appropriate, put under IAEA supervision. The political challenge for the international community is not to push the Iranians so hard that they unite behind the regime and formally withdraw from the NPT-as they are legally entitled to. Then the inspectors would have to leave, and we would enter into a much greyer area with no hope for achieving the transparency that is necessary before one can say with any confidence that Iran's bomb program is in limbo. It would raise the stakes not only for more sanctions, but possibly for preemptive military action. This would be a most unfortunate development, given the other potential disasters in the region, including a highly unstable situation in Afghanistan and increasing terrorism in Iraq.


Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.