West raises stakes over Iran nuclear programme

September 25, 2009

big-3President Obama and the leaders of France and Britain have deliberately raised the stakes in the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme by dramatising the disclosure that it is building a second uranium enrichment plant. Their shoulder-to-shoulder statements of resolve, less than a week before Iran opens talks with six major powers in Geneva, raised more questions than they answer.

It turns out that the United States has known for a long time (how long?) that Iran had been building the still incomplete plant near Qom. Did it share that intelligence with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, and if not, why not? Why did it wait until now, in the middle of a G20 summit in Pittsburgh, to make the announcement — after Iran had notified the International Atomic Energy Authority of the plant’s existence on Monday, after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had delivered a defiant speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday and after the Security Council had adopted a unanimous resolution calling for an end to the spread of nuclear weapons on Thursday?

Is this all part of Obama’s choreography to  build international pressure on Iran by getting Russia, in return for the dropping of plans to put a U.S. missile shield in Poland the Czech Republic, to threaten more sanctions against Tehran? A U.S. official says Obama shared the intelligence with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev at the United Nations this week and China had only just been informed. Did Obama try and fail to get Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao — both in Pittsburgh — to join the three Western leaders on the podium? Or was his hand forced on timing by the fact that the New York Times had got wind of the Iranian nuclear plant and was set to publish the news on Friday?

The division of labour between Obama, Sarkozy and Brown was striking. The U.S. president sounded stern but his tone was measured. He stressed his commitment to dialogue and negotiation with Iran and to Tehran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy. He did not mention sanctions, let alone the possibility of military action. It fell to the Europeans to inject a tone of menace.

Sarkozy accused Iran of defying the international community and taking the world on a dangerous path, and said that unless Tehran changed course by December, there would be tougher sanctions. Brown charged the Islamic Republic with deception and said the international community had no choice but “to draw a line in the sand”, and that he did not rule out anything although sanctions were the preferred route. 

Will the latest disclosure on what Iran insists is a peaceful nuclear programme persuade Russia to renounce the sale of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran? Will it persuade China, which reaffirmed its scepticism about more sanctions this week and has begun supplying gasoline to Iran, to change its mind? The West sees Iran’s dependency on imported fuel as a key vulnerability.

Friday’s dramatic announcement was a clear effort to appeal to the world court of public opinion and maximise pressure on Tehran before the Oct. 1 talks, but there is no sign that the Islamic Republic’s leaders are even considering yielding on their nuclear ambitions. On the contrary, they seem convinced that the nuclear standoff will enable them to patch over deep internal divisions over the disputed June presidential election by playing the patriotic card.


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