Hamid Namvar – 12/8/2005
In an under-reported interview, the head of International Atomic energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, told the British daily Independent that if Iran acts on its threat to reopen its Uranium enrichment underground facility at Natanz, then Tehran could be only "a few months" away from a nuclear weapon after the plant begins its operation. Say what? Only “a few months”?
So far only a few media outlets have picked up on this hugely significant comment by the UN nuclear watchdog’s top official. The Wall Street Journal was apparently so amazed by ElBaradei’s comment that it had to place a call to his office to confirm it. And, yes, it was confirmed. He had actually said it.
And this comes at a time when Washington’s outsourcing of its Iran nuclear policy to the Europeans and Russians has so far been an exercise in futility. Iran’s Ali Larijani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, has been very emphatic about the intent of his government to resume operation at Natanz. "Enrichment will happen, definitely.” He only left open its timing.
Last Wednesday, Larijani addressed a gathering of the Revolutionary Guard forces and laid out parts of Iran’s nuclear outlook. "Too many wrong signals were sent to the West [in the past two years]," he said, adding that "If Iran turns into a nuclear power, then no one dares to challenge it because they have to pay a heavy price."
On Tuesday, Larijani ominously told the Christian Science Monitor that "God forbid, if we do not get a good result [from the talks], there are other paths. No one can limit us." "This is not up for negotiation, and the when and hows of a resumption concern us alone. In our universities, we are conducting research," said Larijani, who is very close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Tehran has already resumed conversion of uranium into gas, a step required to prepare it for enrichment, at its Isfahan facility last August. The decision to resume operation came just a few weeks after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed his presidential office and served as a vivid sign of things to come under Iran’s new president.
Indeed, playing on Europeans’ ambivalence and greed for lucrative commerce, and on the high oil price, Tehran has fully turned the table on the EU’s big-3 negotiators.
Nevertheless, there are indications that this show of confidence is skin-deep given the widening of factional fissures in the regime following Ahmadinejad’ presidency. It is very evident now that the post-election honeymoon is over. Three of Ahmadinejad’s nominees for the vital oil ministry have been rejected by a Parliament [Majlis] which is supposed to have his campaign allies in the majority.
Ahmadinejad, however, has the full backing of the supreme leader Khamenei and the top brass of the Revolutionary Guards so much so that about 70% of his cabinet and other key governmental appointees are from this military-security outfit. Khamenei, contrary to some suggestion, has kept Ahmadinejad under his wings and on several critical occasions has come to his aid. Few days after Ahmadinejad’s diatribe calling for destruction of Israel, Khamenei fully supported him with another blistering attack on Israel and the United States.
The new team in executive branch has a very strong military-security background which signifies Khamenei’s decision to pursue the nuclear bomb path at full speed. Its heavy-handed attitude may have won it the latest round in the November 24 meeting of the IAEA which decided to take no action on Tehran. It, however, served as a wake up call to many policy makers to realize how their engagement and soft power approach has been an utter failure and outright reckless.
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said last week that Ahmadinejad had pursued a confrontational foreign policy, an irresponsible nuclear weapons program, supported terrorism and denied basic human rights to his people since coming to power four months ago. "The world now needs to react to this radical shift in Iran’s behavior. Through its diplomatic contacts and its trade and investment, the world does have leverage … to convince the hard-liners in Tehran that there is a price for their misguided policies."
Washington’s turtle-like departure from the policy of appeasement in late 1990s, to ineffective behavioral-change approach of recent years, now seems to need to go one step further. Burns, noting that “the Iranian public’s growing disaffection with the entire clerical system” stated that "oppressive regimes do not survive forever", adding “U.S. and international policy should be to take active steps to advance the cause of democracy in Iran” by helping the Iranians.
These remarks could be viewed as a prelude to emergence of a comprehensive Iran policy. What should be included in it is an outline of practical and effective measures US is determined to adopt. This will indicate how serious Washington really is and how willing it is to go beyond mere talks.
Hamid Namvar is a freelance writer covering Iran-related issues.