One day after Iran announced that it had succeeded in enriching uranium, Secretary of State Condolezza Rice announced that it is "time for action" on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Based on this AP account, Secretary Rice is urging more diplomatic action, beginning with Friday's visit to Tehran by IAEA Director General, Mohammed El-Baradei. Mr. Baradei is scheduled to hold talks with Iranian officials, in advance of an IAEA status report on Iran, due to the U.N. Security Council on 28 April.
As for what the UNSC should do, Secretary Rice said the UN body should consider "strong steps" to persuade Iran to change course. She refused to speculate as to what those steps might be, or what the U.S. might be willing to support. There has been speculation in the past that the UNSC might impose economic and political sanctions against Iran, but Russian and Chinese officials have expressed reservations about such measures. It doesn't take a member of the diplomatic press corps to figure out that Moscow and Beijing would likely veto any punitive sactions against Tehran. That's one reason the Iranians publicized their successful enrichment effort--they feel that have nothing to fear from a world community that is split over the nuclear issue.
In the game of nuclear poker, Iran has been playing a winning hand. By signing huge energy and military contracts with the Russians and Chinese, the Iranians bought themselves an almost-certain veto in the Security Council, which much approve any sactions. Tehran has also guessed--correctly--that the Europeans can be cowed on this issue, as evidenced by the P.C. responses to the Islamic riots in France a few months ago, and the more recent Danish cartoon controversy. With the exception of Britain, there isn't a single European military willing to sign on for action against Iran, making the threat much more defined, at least from Tehran's perspective.
That means (essentially) that the task of interdicting Iran's nuclear program will essentially be an American enterprise--a proposition that Tehran is quite willing to accept. Iran believes it can survive a U.S. bombing campaign, while unleashing other elements--including terrorist attacks--that will bloody the U.S., and further erode support for the military effort. Indeed, there are some elements in the Tehran government that believe the Iraq experience has left the U.S. unable to attack Iran, at least from the perspectives of public opinion and the upcoming congressional elections. As evidenced by the recent Israeli elections, Iran judges that a democracy is less likely to attack during a political campaign. With the U.S. election only seven months away, the Iranians may sense a window of opportunity, allowing them to pursue their nuclear ambitions, with less chance of an American attack.
Such an assessment may be faulty, however. President Bush has long demonstrated a willingness to ignore poll numbers, and pursue policies that he deems necessary, but are politically unpopular. But the prospect of losing control of one (or both) houses of Congress untimately affects the decision-making process, no matter how much a President wants to stick to his agenda. Mr. Bush's recent pandering to the illegal immigrant lobby proves that he's willing (in some cases) to accept a higher security risk, in exchange for a few more GOP votes. Already burdened by an unpopular (though necessary) war in Iraq--and with his party facing a tight election in the fall--President Bush may decide to defer any military action against Iran, giving more time for diplomacy (and more time for the mullahs to perfect their bomb).
Which brings us back to Secretary Rice and the call for action against Iran. She's certainly saying the right thing, but (so far) there's no sign of forceful measures to back up the rhetoric. Waiting for the UN to act is foolhardy; the UNSC (and the Europeans) seem anxious only to kick the issue down the road, while sustaining ineffective diplomatic efforts that have only aided Iran. The United States has the willpower (and military might) to break the impasse, but that would require an exceptional act of political and diplomatic courage. While Mr. Bush has demonstrated those qualities before, the realities of domestic politics--and the relentless drumbeat of negative news from Iraq--make it mighty tempting to join the rock-kicking brigade. The time for action has arrived, but so far, no one seems willing to risk anything more that diplomatic talks, and sharply-worded statements.
These must be heady days in Tehran.