NY Times - December 22, 2009 - Politicus

Next Stage on Iran Could Hold Real Peril

(If no means no, what's next on Iran?)


LONDON - A little less than a month ago, one of the officials developing the allies' strategy to halt Iran's drive to make a nuclear weapon described their governments' discomfort about soon having to move beyond attempts to engage the mullahs.

The diplomat's remarks, quoted in a European newspaper, hardly created a stir, perhaps because they reflect an obvious truth: months of outstretched Western hands have brought nothing in return from Tehran.

"Sometimes one might perhaps have to accept the answer's no when the answer's no," the official said, according to the press account.

"But we don't want to acknowledge that the answer's no, because we are afraid of the consequences."

That's a hard-edged but reasonable judgment, because the consequences for the United States and its allies demand new levels of resolve that are not without danger.

The consequences also require a tone of confrontation involving tougher sanctions and, considering the sanctions' high potential for failure, follow-up efforts to contain and deter Iran as it moves closer to a nuclear weapon.

That new approach might be widened over weeks and months to come to include more direct support for the opposition to the mullahs on Tehran's streets, and open consideration (or private threats) of a military option.

Until now, compared with Afghanistan, these issues have been far from center-stage among the allies' international security concerns.

But their discussion can't be avoided when the West's end-of-year deadline passes for Iran to have said yes to the International Atomic Energy Agency's best offer: a proposal to have its low enriched uranium exported for enrichment in quantities that would limit, for a time, the Iranian capacity to make a bomb.

As an issue, Afghanistan is now politically circumscribed by new troop reinforcements and a fairly specific time frame for their success that leaves an evaluation until at least the end of 2010.

Concern over Iran, however, is in an accelerating mode without any positive endgame in sight.

Allied intelligence agencies are now weighing the authenticity of suspected Iranian documents, apparently dating from 2007, that describe a four-year plan to test a neutron initiator, a device that creates a nuclear bomb's explosion.

The plan's validation could represent conclusive proof that Iranian denials it is building nukes are false.

On Friday, Iran coupled an announcement that it will begin using more efficient centrifuges in 2011 to enrich uranium - suggesting a speed-up of its efforts to obtain fissile material for nuclear weapons - with a statement by Vice President Ali Akbar that possible new U.N. Security Council resolutions "won't stop us in any field, including the nuclear."

Clearly, convincing the Iranians that a Western response will not be just gesticulation is a difficult perspective.

And it's made particularly complex by the fact that Israel will use its own set of tripwires to determine when it considers the mullahs' nuclear program has become an intolerable existential threat.

Last week, I asked Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for nonproliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies here, and a former State Department expert on nuclear issues, about where he saw the difficulties converging next year.

He said sanctions by the United States and European Union affecting Iran's imports of gasoline (the mullahs have oil, but small refining capacities) could be enacted, but he doubted their effectiveness in stopping the Iranian drive towards nukes.

If that is the case, Mr. Fitzpatrick has said "threatening military force" may be the way forward. He told me, "Iran has to know it's a real possibility."

This was in the context of circumstances in 2010 that appear particularly sensitive. Mr. Fitzpatrick said if Israel's obvious red-lines were known to Iran - Iranian expulsion of U.N. nuclear inspectors from its territory or its renunciation the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, for example - the nature of other tripwires that could unleash an attack were deliberately kept unclear by the Israelis.

He believes Iran's stockpile of low enriched uranium, which he now estimated as sufficient for one and a half bombs when enriched, "will be the equivalent of three or four sometime next year."

"When is too much too much?" for the Israelis, he asked. Or, if Iran intends to stop its enrichment and possible weapons work in building a nuke at a so-called breakout level, is that "so close that the Israelis can't wait?"

Mr. Fitzpatrick is no advocate of an Israeli or American military strike on Iran. But if Israel would attack, he said, "I think Israel's capacity is not insignificant. If the purpose is to take out Iran's known enrichment-related facilities, I think Israel can do that."

A good (and unhappy) guess is that by this time next year, we'll be wondering when that's going to happen.

If Mr. Fitzpatrick's doubts about new sanctions' inconclusive bite are correct, that pretty much guarantees United States and its European friends entering a contain-and-deter-Iran mode.

But can Iran be deterred?

Probably yes when it comes to actually dropping a bomb. On the other hand, unless the United States makes very clear it won't stand for Iran producing or having the capacity to produce a nuke, the most likely Iranian response to deterrent noises will be stitching up a shroud of ambiguity to obscure its at-the-edge-of-production capabilities.

That would provide the credulous in the West a safe place to avoid a hard decision; and, if America goes along too, effectively turn the matter over to the Israelis.

Mr. Fitzpatrick had a good phrase for describing this approach. He said it would leave things "to the only country with the will" to make up its mind.

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