Remarks by U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns led the Financial Times to call "dwindling" not only expectations of a military strike by the U.S. against Iran but also the prospecs of a breakthrough in U.S.-Iran negotiations on Wednesday.[1]  --  On the diplomatic front, Daniel Dombey and Harvey Morris said that sponsors of a third U.N. resolution seem not to have persuaded the U.N. Security Council of the need for further measures against Iran.  --  In a separate opinion piece, also published on Wednesday in the Financial Times, Roy Takeyh and Joseph Cirincione argued that despite the sniping from critics in the Bush administration and elsewhere, Nobel Peace Prize-winning IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei "is judiciously achieving the goals that they seemingly desire — the disarmament of the Islamic Republic."[2] ...



Middle East & North Africa

By Daniel Dombey (Washington) and Harvey Morris (United Nations)

Financial Times (London)
February 27, 2008

The senior U.S. official responsible for handling the dispute over Iran's nuclear program has admitted that the Bush administration is unlikely to resolve the issue, which until recently was seen as a possible cause of military confrontation between Washington and Tehran.

"I think this is going to be a drama that plays out well into 2009 and beyond," Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state, told the Council on Foreign Relations ahead of leaving office at the end of this month.

His comments indicated the dwindling expectations in Washington of either a U.S. airstrike on Iran or an imminent breakthrough in negotiations. Sponsors of a third U.N. resolution hope to put it to the Security Council by Friday despite failure so far to persuade all 15 member states to accept the need for further measures against Iran.

Mr. Burns added: "There's plenty of room for this type of diplomacy, both sanctions as well as the positive offers of negotiations. That will continue, I'm quite sure, into the next administration."

Expectations of U.S. military action against Iran have tumbled since the December NIE said Tehran had halted efforts to weaponize nuclear material in 2003. The U.S. military itself had also previously voiced concerns about a possible military strike, which some analysts warn could escalate into a broader confrontation.

At the same time, the incremental imposition of U.N. sanctions has so far failed to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment in line with Security Council demands. Tehran says its nuclear program is purely peaceful.

Mr. Burns said Iran's work on enrichment -- which can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons grade material -- was "outpacing" the sanctions, but expressed hope that a new U.N. sanctions resolution would be followed by tougher action from the European Union, Middle Eastern countries, and elsewhere.

The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog said last week that Iran was continuing to expand its enrichment activity, deploying a new generation of centrifuges.

In comments to journalists yesterday, Sallai Meridor, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., said Tehran's nuclear program had made important progress over the past two years. "The writing is on the wall," he said, calling for U.N. and international action. "If they are not stopped we will leave our children with a nightmare."

Giadalla Ettalhi, Libya's envoy to the U.N., said this week that his government would not support further sanctions on the basis of a proposed text issued by France and the U.K. last week and would probably vote against the resolution.

Western diplomats said South Africa, Indonesia, and Vietnam, all non-permanent members of the council with no right of veto, also had reservations.


Comment & analysis


By Ray Takeyh and Joseph Cirincione

Financial Times (London)
February 27, 2008

It is a popular parlor game in Washington's corridors of power and European chancelleries to deride Mohamed ElBaradei as a quixotic bureaucrat determined to subvert the Western strategy of restraining Iran's nuclear program. The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report suggesting progress has been made by Iran is quietly disparaged by the Bush administration as another clean pass for the rash theocracy. The point that Mr. ElBaradei's critics miss is that he is judiciously achieving the goals that they seemingly desire -- the disarmament of the Islamic Republic.

The IAEA process, particularly the adoption last year of a "work plan" to investigate suspect activities, has been criticized by many Americans. The latest report shows, however, that process is working. The investigation and inspections -- even the limited ones the IAEA is currently able to conduct -- have, in effect, shut down direct weapons work and resolved many of the outstanding historical questions.

One of the main issues that triggered headlines in 2006 was the IAEA discovery of traces of highly-enriched uranium on machinery that Iran said it was using to produce only low-enriched uranium for fuel. The new report accepts Iran's evidence that the traces came from contamination in Pakistan -- the country that sold Iran the machines. The agency considers this question resolved, but wants more information to verify it. Similarly, the agency accepts Iran's evidence that equipment it acquired, such as balancing machines and magnets that could be used for nuclear weapons research, is now being used for legitimate civilian purposes. It is also satisfied that experiments with polonium-210 (that can be used as a trigger for an explosive nuclear chain reaction) were not part of a larger weapon project.

The main outstanding issues relate to evidence provided by the U.S. from a laptop computer said to have come from Iran containing documents such as a design for a missile warhead and detailed nuclear weapon-related studies. The report gives the most complete public description yet of the laptop's contents. Iran dismisses the documents as "fabrications." But the IAEA wants more information "critical to an assessment of a possible military dimension to Iran's nuclear program."

In sum, the IAEA investigations have produced enough circumstantial evidence to support the view that Iran probably conducted nuclear weapons research in the past. But the evidence to date also indicates, as the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran concluded last November, that Iran stopped this direct weapons work. The path now is to recognize this success, deepen it, find a way for Iran to come clean safely on its past work and to prevent Iran from developing capabilities that could allow it to produce weapon material in the next decade.

Mr. ElBaradei has disproved the notion that Iran's nuclear strategy is immutable. Despite its apparent solidarity, there are divisions within the theocratic regime on the urgency of the nuclear program. It is true that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his militant allies' calculations are susceptible to neither offers of incentives nor threats of force. However, for the more tempered members of the ruling élite, the nuclear issue is considered within the context of international relations. Indeed, the fact that Iran has suspended the weapon design component of its programme since 2003 and is largely complying with the IAEA "work plan" reflects the propensity of the state to adhere to certain limits.

The best means of diminishing the hardliners is for the U.S. and its European allies to offer Iran a chance for a resumed relationship. The prospect of diplomatic ties with America and integration into the global economy will motivate pragmatic elements of the theocracy. Iran will have an incentive to restrain its nuclear ambitions and confine its program within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The U.S. and Europe are right to be concerned about Iran's nuclear plans. However, a strategy of employing threats of economic strangulation and Security Council resolutions has only empowered the more reactionary elements that thrive on Western animosity. Instead of sanctions, the West should appreciate that a nuanced diplomacy of reconciliation could both regulate Iran's nuclear program and help stabilize the Middle East. It is the much maligned Mr. ElBaradei that has paved the way for success.

--Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Joseph Cirincione will become president of the Ploughshares Fund next month.