Analysis: As Iran pulls a fast one, the world bickers

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, December 3, 2009
Iranian clerics inspect air-defence missiles during a war game last week

Iranian clerics inspect air-defence missiles during a war game last week

The two-month diplomatic dance between Iran and the international community over the proposed deal to transfer Iran’s uranium abroad for further enrichment seemingly ended last week in Vienna. Diplomacy, said the outgoing director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, had reached “a dead end”.

Iran was offered a very advantageous deal — one that, substantially, recognised its right to enrich uranium and only delayed the moment when it will have nuclear bombs ready to use by several months.

In response, Tehran took its time and engaged in the usual elaborate scheme of contradictory responses. In practice it was postponing an answer, buying time and preparing the ground for a better offer from the international community. The strategy worked for two months, with every deadline broken by Iran met by undeserved understanding by its interlocutors. But unlike past instances of Iranian delaying tactics, this time the IAEA board of governors displayed political resolve. In a rare display of unity, the board condemned Iran, with 25 votes in favour, five abstentions and only three dissents, by Cuba, Malaysia and Venezuela.

The resolution demanded that Iran suspend construction at its recently exposed Fordow site near Qom — an underground enrichment facility that experts say can only be for military purposes — and asked Iran to reveal any other clandestine sites.

Predictably, Iran responded defiantly. On Sunday President Ahmadinejad instructed the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to begin planning 10 additional enrichment sites.

It would be reasonable to assume that, given the circumstances, the same unity exhibited in Vienna will now lead the UN Security Council to seize on the IAEA resolution and renew pressure on Iran, hopefully through new sanctions. After all, Iran’s behaviour looks like a resolute rejection of US President Obama’s offer to engage with it, and his deadline for the end of the year is fast approaching. China and Russia even broke with their past ambiguity and supported the IAEA condemnation of their protégé and commercial partner.

Unfortunately, that is where their co-operation ends. China has already signalled its opposition to new sanctions. Russia continues to play its game both ways, sending contradictory messages and using its privileged access to Tehran as leverage with the West. And Europe, ever so divided on how to proceed, has conveniently taken refuge behind President Obama’s engagement strategy — we do not wish to undercut it by going in the opposite direction!

And so it goes, and that is why Iran is defiant. The only challenge it faces are the empty words of an IAEA resolution and the flimsiness of a divided international community, whose ability to recognise the threat of a nuclear Iran is not matched by the resolve to prevent it.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is director of the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010