WASHINGTON â€” In its drive to build an international consensus against Iran developing nuclear weapons, the Bush administration has made a significant concession but failed to develop an effective strategy for resolving one of its greatest challenges, experts say.
Tough US threats have given way to a more pragmatic approach as Washington encouraged key European Union states â€” Britain, France and Germany, or EU 3 â€” to lead in persuading Tehran not to pursue atomic arms and related activities.
US officials insist they are making progress in isolating what they call an ever more radical Iranian government.
But the diplomacy so far has failed to halt Iran’s nuclear-related activities, which Tehran insists are purely for peaceful energy purposes. Some people worry an Iranian bomb may be inevitable and that other states will follow suit.
With oil profits rising, the Iranians “feel they are negotiating from a position of strength. They have money to co-opt their friends,” Michael Rubin, co-author of a new book, “Eternal Iran,” told Reuters.
“We talk a good game but are not doing anything to support the Iranian people … We do not yet have a comprehensive strategy” for the Islamic republic, added Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser now at the American Enterprise Institute, which has close ties to the administration.
The administration has long been divided on Iran but a senior official said a consensus is evolving that could produce a new policy. He gave no details.
After new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month called for Israel’s destruction, the leading pro-Israel lobbying group â€” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee â€” took the unusual step of publicly faulting the US approach.
Tehran denies Western charges it is developing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian energy programme. However, it has acknowledged concealing an uranium enrichment programme â€” crucial for weapons â€” from UN inspectors for two decades.
AIPAC complained that despite insisting for two years that Iran be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions, the administration did not force a decision at last month’s International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors meeting.
The EU 3 suspended negotiations with Iran in August after Tehran resumed uranium processing, a precursor to enrichment, and in September the IAEA found Iran in noncompliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But in November, the board put off a UN referral so Europe could continue talking with Tehran. Iran and the EU 3 are still discussing whether the talks can resume.
The United States and Europe endorsed a Russian proposal to allow Iran to continue less-sensitive uranium conversion work in Iran but transfer the critical enrichment stage to Russia.
This was a major and risky reversal by the Western powers, which had insisted Iran abandon all enrichment activities.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US non-proliferation official now at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the deal could meet Washington’s “bottom line needs” if Iran accepted it, if the IAEA pursued intrusive inspections and if international intelligence services can ensure Tehran does not have a covert nuclear programme.
But those are big ifs.
The Americans figure Iran will reject the Russian deal and that US endorsement of the compromise will ensure that Moscow â€” a key player because it is building Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility â€” supports Security Council referral as a fallback.
But Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations is sceptical. “Given their strategic and economic relationship with Iran, the Russians are not prepared to place Iran in the framework of international sanctions,” he said.
One sign of Russian ambivalence: two days after Washington urged nations to increase pressure so Iran pays a price for its “radical” policies, Moscow said it would sell Tehran more than $1 billion in missiles and other hardware.
In a further effort to pressure Iran, the United States and its allies are trying to get Russia and China to formally endorse their conclusion that Iran is building nuclear weapons, The New York Times reported on Sunday.