OpinionIran in the World PressBush may end term with Iran issue unsettled

Bush may end term with Iran issue unsettled


ImageNew York Times: For more than five years now, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have made clear that they did not want to leave office with Iran any closer to possessing nuclear weapons than when they took office.

The New York Times

News Analysis

Published: June 21, 2008

ImageWASHINGTON — For more than five years now, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have made clear that they did not want to leave office with Iran any closer to possessing nuclear weapons than when they took office.

“The nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons,” Mr. Bush said in February 2006. The United States is prepared to use its naval power “to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region,” Mr. Cheney said in 2007 from a Navy carrier in the Persian Gulf.

But with seven months left in this administration, Iran appears ascendant, its political and economic influence growing, its historic foes in Iraq and Afghanistan weakened, and its nuclear program continuing to move forward. So the question now is: Are Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney resigned to leaving Iran more powerful than they found it when they came to office?

The evidence is mixed. For all the talk to the contrary, Bush administration officials appear to have concluded that diplomatic efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions will not yield any breakthroughs this year.

Despite a recent flurry of efforts to tighten sanctions on Iran, top officials on both sides of the Atlantic, in recent interviews, had no expectations that Iran’s rulers would make any concessions, particularly on the critical issue of suspending the enrichment of uranium, while Mr. Bush remained in office.

On the military front, the picture is fuzzier. Two senior administration officials said that barring a move by Israel, which one characterized as “the wild card” on the Iranian issue, this administration would not be likely to pursue military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.

Mr. Bush himself seemed to signal as much at the start of his European tour last week in Slovenia, when he said of Iran that he expected to “leave behind a multilateral framework to work on this issue,” a statement that seemed to suggest that military action against Iran may no longer be on the table.

But there remains the possibility that Israel could force the hand of the Bush administration, foreign policy analysts and diplomats said. Israel carried out a three-day military exercise this month that American intelligence officials say appeared to have been a rehearsal for a potential strike on nuclear targets in Iran.

Israeli officials have tried to put pressure in recent months on the Bush administration to consider such a strike if Iran did not abandon its nuclear program, and the exercise may have been intended as a new signal that Israel might be willing to act alone if the United States did not.

“Israel prefers this threat be dealt with peacefully, by dramatically increasing sanctions and maintaining a credible resolve to keep all options on the table,” said Sallai Meridor, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. “But time is running out.”

Iran, he said, “should understand that under no circumstances will the world allow it to obtain a nuclear capability.”

Mohamad ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Al Arabiya television that he would quit his job in the event of a military strike on Iran.

“It would turn the region into a fireball,” he said in an interview broadcast Friday, according to Reuters.

Israeli officials have expressed fear to the Bush administration that a new administration would take months, if not years, to decide on its approach to Iran. The consensus in the United States and Europe is that Iran is still at least two years away from a nuclear weapon. Israeli officials say they believe the threshold is closer to a year.

An Israeli military strike on Iran would almost certainly require American help. For one thing, Pentagon officials say, it would take hundreds of sorties to take out a big swath of Iranian air defense. For another, the United States controls much of the airspace around Iran. Beyond that, Iran would hold the United States accountable for an Israeli strike, and could retaliate against American troops in Iraq.

In Moscow on Friday, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov urged dialogue rather than confrontation with Iran and said that the United States and Israel had not offered any proof that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program. “So far we have not seen any,” Mr. Lavrov said, according to Interfax news agency.

A trip to Tehran last weekend by European diplomats with a new package of incentives was largely for Iranian public consumption, and to appease Russia and China by appearing to be still trying to woo Iran, European and American diplomats said.

But European diplomats have been loath to acknowledge publicly that diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear development is in a holding pattern for the next eight months because they fear that Iran will only use that time to make progress on its nuclear program, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes.

“One should not talk about keeping the status quo because that would be dangerous,” one European diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity under diplomatic rules. “We can’t say the clock has stopped and we will begin work again after Jan. 1; that is not a good recipe for success.”

Administration efforts to convey a sense of urgency about stopping Iran’s nuclear program were dealt a blow late last year with the release of a National Intelligence Estimate reporting that Iran had stopped work on a nuclear weapons program in 2003. In recent months, Bush administration officials have tried to walk back from that report, repeating often that Iran’s nuclear program remains a threat.

Many foreign policy experts are now looking to the next administration for a possible new approach to the standoff with Iran. “The Europeans all understand that the carrots-and-sticks approach is not working, and the entire Iran diplomatic policy has to be rethought,” said Vali R. Nasr, an Iran expert at Tufts University. Until a new administration takes over, he said, “we’re stuck in a process where the ball is kicked to the bureaucrats.”

Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting from Moscow.

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