On Thursday, for the first time, North Korea formally admitted that it possesses nuclear weapons. In so doing, the Stalinist state made clear that the Bush administration's recent policy of avoiding public censure of North Korea, in the hope of reigniting the six-party talks on its illicit nuclear program, was at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive.
The North Korean example is worth noting because it bears significantly on the current state of international reckoning with Iran's program to develop nuclear weapons.
Over the past week or so, the Bush administration has made repeated statements to the effect that it has no intention for now of taking any military action against Iranian nuclear sites, but rather wishes to concentrate on solving the issue through diplomacy. This, in spite of Mossad Chief Meir Dagan's statement last month that "by the end of 2005, the Iranians will reach the point of no return from the technological perspective of creating a uranium-enrichment capability."
Today, two diplomatic plans for contending with Iran are on the table. The first is the attempt by France, Germany and Britain to reach an agreement with Iran whereby, in exchange for nuclear fuel and economic cooperation and assistance, the Iranian government will abandon its nuclear program.
The second is the Bush administration's proposal to have the issue of Iran's nuclear weapons program transferred from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the UN Security Council, where the US wishes to raise the possibility of UN-backed sanctions against the mullocracy.
During her meetings with European leaders and the press in the course of her travels this week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent out contradictory signals. On the one hand, she told Fox News Wednesday that the Iranians "need to hear that the discussions that they are in with the Europeans are not going to be a kind of way station where they are allowed to continue their activities, that there's going to be an end to this and that they are going to end up in the Security Council."
Yet later in the day, Rice clarified that the US has "set no deadline, no timeline," for how long talks between the Europeans and the Iranians could continue before the matter was moved to the Security Council.
For their part, both the Europeans and the Iranians have dismissed the American proposal, insisting that America support their negotiations now taking place in Geneva.
The Iranian government's reaction to the US plan has been caustic. Responding to Rice's statements on Wednesday, Iranian president Muhammad Khatami said, "We consider enrichment our clear right and will never give it up. We suspended it voluntarily to show our goodwill."
Khatami also made a thinly veiled threat that Iran would vacate its signature to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty if provoked, saying, "If we feel others are not meeting their promises, under no circumstances would we be committed to continue fulfilling ours. And we will adopt a new policy, the consequences of which are massive and would be the responsibility of those who broke their commitments."
In the meantime, on the ground, Security Council veto-wielding members are making it clear that far from supporting sanctions against Iran, they are warming their ties to Teheran.
Iran's official news agency, IRNA, reported on Wednesday that Standard Charter Bank of Britain will be the second European bank to open a branch in the Iranian free trade zone on the island of Kish. The first bank, the Iran-Europe Commercial Bank, opened last month and is jointly owned by German and Iranian investors.
Also Wednesday, the Russian Embassy in Teheran announced that over the weekend former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov will lead the heads of more than 30 Russian companies on a visit to Iran, where they will sign an agreement setting up a joint Russian-Iranian trade council.
More disturbingly, on Monday it was reported that the head of Russia's Atomic Energy Agency, Aleksandr Rumyantsev, will be traveling to Iran later in the month to sign an agreement for supplying Iran with nuclear fuel for its Russian-built nuclear plant in Bushehr. And on Sunday, Iran and Russia signed an agreement for a joint Russian, French and German program to develop the Zohre satellite for Iran. The program includes training of Iranian scientists to develop independent capabilities in space launches and technologies.
As for China, this week Undersecretary of State John Bolton said in Tokyo that the US would suspend business with Chinese companies that provide sensitive weapons technology to Iran and other countries trying to build weapons of mass destruction. Bolton admitted, however, that the Chinese government has taken no action against China North Industries Corp., with which the US has already suspended trade links due to its proliferation activities.
So, on the one hand, the Europeans are pursuing an agreement with the Iranians that has no chance of ending or significantly slowing down Iran's program to acquire nuclear weapons. And on the other hand, the Bush administration proposes referring the issue to the UN Security Council, where every veto-wielding member aside from the US is either actively assisting Iran's nuclear program or actively fostering ties with Iran in a manner that rules out any chance of a sanctions resolution getting adopted.
In light of this, can it be concluded that the US dropping the ball on Iran just as it apparently dropped the ball on North Korea – taking a soft stand toward a regime that views softness as a sign of weakness, not as a diplomatic opportunity? Perhaps.
Yet there are other noises. Two weeks ago, UPI published a report that the US Air Force has been infiltrating Iranian airspace in an attempt to grid the country's air defense systems for use in future targeting. The report quotes US government officials claiming that Israeli-trained Kurds are infiltrating Iran from northern Iraq for the purpose of mapping Iran's nuclear sites, while US-trained Iranian exiles are infiltrating Iran from Basra and the Baluch province of Pakistan for the same purpose.
Aside from that, in his State of the Union address last month, Bush encouraged the Iranian people to oppose their regime, saying, "As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."
Bush's call was made just before the Iraqi elections, whose results will likely bring Shi'ites to power for the first time.
Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress who was instrumental in forming the United Iraqi Alliance list which is the projected winner of last month's elections, is a likely candidate to become Iraq's next prime minister. In an interview with The New York Sun on Wednesday, Chalabi said that the Iraqi elections "will have an influence on the democratic movement in Iran."
Also on Wednesday, US Senator Rick Santorum introduced the Iran Freedom and Support Act to the Senate. The act will commit America to "actively support a national referendum in Iran with oversight by international observers and monitors to certify the integrity and fairness of the referendum." According to the Sun report, the legislation will enable the president to finance democracy movements in Iran and to fund pro-democracy radio and television broadcasting there.
Santorum's bill, together with Bush's statement and the prospect of the ascension of a non-radical Shi'ite-dominated democratic government in Iraq, provide the greatest encouragement the Iranians have received to date to overthrow the clerical regime.
It is not easy to conflate the declared American policy of pursuing a diplomatic track that has no chance of succeeding with isolated indications that a completely opposite plan may be in the works. If the Bush administration wishes to build an international coalition that would back a combined military and revolutionary offensive targeting the Iranian regime and its nuclear installations, it is hard to understand how Washington's current declared policy will effect such a result.
On the other hand, perhaps it doesn't matter. If a US-Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear installations came immediately before the instigation of a popular overthrow of the regime, who would be able to condemn the action?
Whatever the case may be, Israel for its part should say nothing about any possible military action. Israel's deterrent posture has already been damaged severely by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to appease Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas by returning to the failed Oslo process.
Israel's default position should be to use diplomacy to shame Europe into backing military action. Israel should fervently, loudly and publicly protest the appeasement policy adopted by Germany, France and Britain in the face of Iran's stated intention to annihilate the Jewish state with nuclear weapons.
But if it works out that, as with North Korea, the US has no plan to take effective action to stop Iran's nuclear program – if US policy has indeed limited itself to the conduct of impotent diplomacy – then Israel's policy imperatives will be radically altered.
Israel will have to act independently. For as is clear to every Israeli, Israel cannot abide a nuclear-armed Iran.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.