IAEA negotiators have few ideas about where to go next on Iran’s nukes. Can they test the ‘middle ground?’

March 6, 2006 - As the leading powers meet in Vienna today and tomorrow to address Iran's nuclear program, the most serious problem they face is not what is going on in Tehran. It is that no one on the Western side seems to know what to do about Tehran. The major negotiators at the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting are now looking to the United States, which convinced the Europeans to take a harder line against Iranian enrichment a year ago. Washington is touting its diplomatic isolation of Tehran as a success (and so it has been, helped by the over-the-top rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). But the Bush administration doesn't seem to have any good ideas about where to go next with this isolation. It is a tool, yet the Americans seem to treat it as an end, not a means. As the debate heads into the U.N. Security Council, policy is at a standstill.

Washington has said it isn't close to considering military action. Nor is it even ready to propose economic sanctions, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated over the weekend. OK, no attack, no sanctions: that would seem to leave a negotiated solution. But there is no proposal on the table, and none forthcoming.

What to do? Forceful diplomacy works only if it is backed by the credible threat of force. That doesn't really exist here. Bush is too vulnerable to Iranian retaliation against U.S. troops next door in Iraq, and even Washington hardliners realize that nothing would do more to rally popular Iranian support for Ahmadinejad than an attack. Bush ignored Iran for most of his first term (beyond calling it part of the axis of evil), then waited until an even more objectionable regime came into power in Tehran before he spelled out any approach. Now the Bush administration wants to devote $75 million to promote regime change, but achieving this from the outside is an unrealistic hope as well—especially when combined with the current U.S. policy of unremitting confrontation. Simply continuing to issue ultimatums, without real negotiation, will only turn Ahmadinejad into the next Fidel Castro (he is a deft populist who travels to the provinces more than any other Iranian president). Building on the perception of a foreign threat, he will only consolidate his power.

Even now Tehran is hoping for some new diplomatic daylight. Iranian pragmatists stand ready to constrain Ahmadinejad if there is some give on the American side. Among the solutions: a face-saving way to allow the Iranians to say they are retaining the right to enrich on their own soil, which has become their "red line" in talks, but which also ensures they will not develop a bomb, which is the West's bottom line. One such proposal was floated in recent weeks to little notice by John Thomson, the former chairman of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This calls for a foreign-managed consortium or holding company on Iranian soil, overseen by the IAEA. Governments such as Britain and Germany could be among the shareholders. "The holding company would lease all Iranian facilities connected with enrichment, including their existing centrifuges," Thomson and Geoffrey Forden wrote in the Financial Times on Feb. 19. "The IAEA presence and the international management company are more likely to deter and detect clandestine activity than the solutions currently preferred by the west, including enrichment in Russia."

The Iranians may not be averse to this idea, diplomats involved in the negotiations tell NEWSWEEK. They might also consider other compromise proposals, such as an IAEA-monitored "cap" on the number of centrifuges that Tehran would be permitted to have for "research and development" enrichment. "The middle ground has never been tested," says a diplomat who is close to the discussions in Tehran. Ironically, discussing a plan like the consortium would take the Europeans back to where they were before Washington prodded them into insisting that Tehran accept what it says it cannot: a total abdication of its right to enrich uranium (in 2004 the "EU-3"—Germany , Britain and France—had only bargained for suspension, not cessation). But the Europeans will need to get the OK from George W. Bush to sanction such a compromise. For the moment, he's not likely to give it.

The Iranians naturally see a White House plot in this. Some Iranian negotiators believe that Rice and Bush were leery of leaving America isolated again if it decided to strike—as occurred with Iraq—so they decided to play along with European negotiations while quietly undermining them.

Last March, Bush agreed to forthrightly back talks by the EU-3 that included a readiness to supply Tehran with incentives like airplane parts. But those were small concessions for show, some Iranians believe. In reality Bush won even bigger concessions from the Europeans, who agreed to Washington's rigid refusal to grant Tehran any right to enrichment on Iranian soil and to refer Iran to the Security Council if talks broke down. This was all part of Bush's and Rice's plan, the diplomat believes. The idea was that when negotiations inevitably failed, the Europeans would have no choice but to back tougher U.S. action, since they could hardly disown their own diplomacy. The Russians and Chinese could then be induced to follow. As this diplomat argued to me a year ago, at a time when most pundits were writing that Bush had signed onto the more moderate European approach, "If the U.S. is trying—as I suspect—to limit the negotiating room of the Europeans so that only cessation of enrichment can be on the table, then there is not much cause for celebration for the moderates here, in Europe or Tehran."

In truth, such foresight would have been a tad too Machiavellian for the Bush team. No one in the Bush administration has shown much of a strategic ability to think so many moves ahead, as we have seen in Iraq and in the war against Al Qaeda. Instead Bush and Rice were mainly concerned that if diplomacy failed—as they thought it would—world opinion should blame Iran, not the United States. Their main goal was to "clarify" to the world that Iran's rogue regime intended to get a bomb no matter what. Then they could have a relatively free hand in deciding what to do next.

But a year later there couldn't be less clarity—about both Iranian and U.S. intentions. For now, Washington has the edge in putting Tehran on the spot, but the U.S. advantage will swiftly melt away unless there is some next step, some forward momentum toward a middle ground. This is especially true in light of Bush's deal last week to bring nuclear-armed India back into international good graces. While most members of the IAEA Board of Governors agree that democratic India, with its excellent record on nonproliferation, is very different from Iran, the fact is that Washington is now granting Delhi what it refuses to consider for Tehran: the right to uranium enrichment. To further muddle the debate at the IAEA and the Security Council, India has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while Iran remains a signatory.

Already the U.S. side is beginning to squander its credibility. Last week U.N. Ambassador John Bolton made the absurd allegation that India's acquisition of nuclear power was "legitimate" while Iran's was not. His remark fooled no-one who is engaged in today's debate. It is well known that India outraged the West in the 1970s by secretly building what it called a "peaceful" nuclear bomb by using plutonium from a civilian reactor supplied with U.S. "heavy water." Indeed, it was in response to this act that the U.S. Congress strengthened the Atomic Energy Act in 1978.

U.S. officials concede they are unlikely to get punitive sanctions against Iran out of the Security Council—especially with the abrasive Bolton leading the talks—but they are hoping that Tehran's recalcitrance will provide enough cover for the United States, Europe and Japan to agree on their own economic sanctions against Iran separately. Bolton claimed on Sunday that "many other governments have begun to include the word sanctions in their discourse on Iran." But many others won't back sanctions. Russia is siding with the West for the moment, but a year ago it cut a major deal with Tehran to supply fuel to Bushehr, the Iranian reactor it is building. Another worry of European negotiators is that oil-hungry China will try to cut a separate deal with Tehran if the West applies sanctions, in effect locking in an oil supply for itself, according to a top European foreign policy official.

There is still room for negotiation. And there is still time. It is silly to think that Iran, even under Ahmadinejad, intends to develop nuclear weapons no matter what. The evidence simply isn't there and to merely assert it, as the Bush administration is doing, won't fly after Washington's misbegotten case against Iraq, which all but shattered U.S. credibility. "I don't think Iran's made up its mind to deploy nuclear weapons," says David Albright, the Washington-based nuclear expert who first helped reveal Iran's secret facilities. ""I think Iranian experts want the technical capability to make nuclear weapons relatively quickly, and they are postponing decisions to do so, to minimize the risk. They want to stay within the NPT as along as possible. They don't see an enemy that's driving them to deploy nuclear weapons. Now if the United States starts threatening them...."

Indeed, within Tehran the strategists who oppose the development of a bomb rest their arguments on the idea that to do so would only invite U.S. aggression; a preemptive attack now by Bush would likely only rob them of their chief point and strengthen the pro-bomb faction.

The diplomat says the Iranian chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, "wants to resolve this issue"—the reason for his calling an 11th-hour conference with the Europeans before the IAEA meeting. But the moment must be seized. This week would be a good start.

source - "http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11700326/site/newsweek/?GT1=7850"