Bush and Iran


The Wall Street Journal – Review & Outlook: Bill Clinton often complained that history had denied him the sort of historic challenge — a Great Depression or war — that might have made his Presidency great. We suspect that, after five tumultuous years, President Bush has more than once wished that he could have been so lucky.
The Wall Street Journal

Review & Outlook

Bill Clinton often complained that history had denied him the sort of historic challenge — a Great Depression or war — that might have made his Presidency great. We suspect that, after five tumultuous years, President Bush has more than once wished that he could have been so lucky.

But that is not the fate of this President, who has had to confront the consequences of the holiday from history that was the 1990s: September 11, continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now his most severe test yet, the looming crisis over Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.

* * *

Iran’s announcement this month that it has enriched uranium to reactor-grade levels marks a watershed, and there is no point putting a hopeful gloss on it. Iran now owns the entire nuclear fuel cycle, from mining uranium ore from its own deposits, to milling it, crushing it, converting it to hexafluoride gas and enriching it in homemade centrifuges.

Technically, uranium enrichment to reactor-grade constitutes the most difficult phase of the process; moving from there to bomb-grade is much easier. “You can have a lot of problems with the first [centrifuge cascade”>,” a knowledgeable U.S. government source recently told us. “But once you master it, then you just replicate it elsewhere.”

Nor is that all. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims Iran is “conducting research” on an advanced centrifuge obtained from rogue Pakistan scientist A.Q. Khan, and which it has previously denied using. This means Iran has once again admitted lying to the International Atomic Energy Agency. It also indicates Iran has a more extensive covert nuclear program than previously recognized, and that it is much closer to its goal of developing an industrial-scale nuclear base than generally assumed.

Put simply, the idea that Iran is still a decade away from a bomb — as was suggested by last year’s National Intelligence Estimate — now looks like wishful thinking. The Iranian bomb will thus be a crisis for this Administration, not the next, and Mr. Bush will have no choice but to offer the kind of leadership he has so far outsourced to the Europeans and the United Nations.

This does not yet mean giving up on diplomacy, although it does mean being realistic about its limits and clear about the alternatives. The threat of comprehensive sanctions that would put Tehran under a trade and oil embargo, bar Iranian officials from traveling abroad and forbid Iranian athletes from participating in international sporting events might persuade Iran’s religious leaders that there is a prohibitive price to pay for going nuclear. But we doubt it.

Far from deterring the mullahs, sanctions are likelier to hasten their quest for a bomb, if only because nuclear-armed regimes are harder to isolate and contain than non-nuclear ones. Sanctions on Pakistan and India, imposed after their nuclear tests in 1998, barely lasted a few years.

In any case, the chances of the international community imposing sanctions — and sticking to them — are vanishingly small. Russia and China have made their opposition plain. China will not allow itself to be cut off from supplies of Iranian oil and natural gas. And Russia increasingly sees Tehran as a valuable customer: Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr is being built by Russia, which also supplies advanced anti-aircraft missiles to defend it.

As for the Europeans, three years of fruitless diplomacy have at least persuaded them of Tehran’s bad faith. But neither Germany nor France (which has extensive trade links with Iran) appear prepared to go along with serious sanctions, while British Foreign Minister Jack Straw has made a career of trying to cultivate the mullahs.

Instead, the “international community” and U.S. foreign policy establishment are likely to press the Administration to pursue what’s being called a “Grand Bargain”: direct talks between Washington and Tehran leading to an end to the U.S. embargo and a resumption of diplomatic relations in exchange for an Iranian promise to abandon its nuclear program. The bargain idea has just got a boost from Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Talking to the mullahs, he recently told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “would be useful,” adding that the Administration needed to “make more headway diplomatically.”

This is precisely what Mr. Clinton tried with North Korea in the 1990s, when Pyongyang was offered economic and technical assistance in exchange for promising to give up its nuclear ambitions. As we now know, the North pocketed that American commitment, went ahead covertly with its weapons programs, and is now demanding further U.S. concessions.

In the same way, nothing Iran has done in recent years offers any indication it would honor such a bargain. It has consistently lied to the IAEA, trashed its agreements with Europe, openly flouted a U.N. Security Council resolution, provided explosives to insurgents in Iraq, developed ballistic missiles of increasing range, selected a president with apocalyptic religious impulses, and engaged in vitriolic anti-American and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

This is not the behavior of an ordinary state — a “status quo power,” in diplomatic jargon — that aims to “normalize” its position in the world through diplomacy. Rather, they are the acts of a revolutionary regime seeking to spread its ideology and power by force and intimidation.

Most of all, the U.S. should think very carefully about making deals with a despotic regime that enjoys the support of only 20% of its own people, at least if our aim is to see the regime toppled peacefully from within. In his 2006 State of the Union address, Mr. Bush addressed the Iranian people directly, saying “we respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom.” A “grand bargain” of the kind suggested by Mr. Lugar would betray that promise and assist the mullahs in retaining power.

* * *

The task now for the President is to begin speaking publicly about why a nuclear Iran is, as he calls it, “unacceptable.” Far from preparing for war with Iran, the Administration has barely begun to confront the tough choices at hand. The reasons for this reluctance are easy to appreciate: The future of democratic Iraq is far from assured; Mr. Bush’s approval ratings are in the tank and his political capital is depleted; and the military options against Iran have their own limitations and risks. But Mr. Bush remains President for 33 more months, with a Constitutional responsibility to ensure our safety. And there is no more clear and present danger than Iran’s nuclear programs.

Our point today is not to advocate any specific course of action. But the Administration can’t postpone any longer a candid discussion about the nature and urgency of the Iranian threat. That discussion must include the Congress; this would be helpful not least as a way of smoking out exactly what Senator Lugar and his fellow-grand bargainers are really proposing as an alternative to sanctions or force. If they think an Iranian nuke is acceptable, they should say so.

Above all, the President must begin to educate the American public about what is at stake in Iran and what the U.S. might be prepared to do about it. Until he does so, he will be hostage to a series of increasingly distressing Tehran “announcements,” the pace and timing of which will be dictated by the clerics and zealots who wish us ill.

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