Making Iran laugh with U.S. tough talk, no action

Western sanctions are making life difficult in Iran, but at least the West does provide some comic relief to the beleaguered regime. They must be laughing.The picture of the gray-faced Ahmadinejad cracking a smile, and the dour Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei shaking with laughter beneath his robe, came to me as I accidentally stumbled on a headline from 2006, “Annan: Iran Seriously Considering Nuclear Offer.”

The story, as the title suggests, explains that the then-United Nations Secretary General was feeling optimistic. After meeting with the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, he thought Tehran was just about to agree to an “incentives package” offered by the Europeans, through their foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, to persuade Iran to stop enriching uranium. The prospects were looking good, apparently, but “no specific dates” were given for an official answer.

Those European officials are no longer waiting, because they no longer have their jobs. Also out of their job are Annan and even President Bush, who warned back then that he was starting to lose patience with Tehran.

Fast-forward to this week, and you can see why there must be much amusement in Iran’s halls of power.

Open window

Vice President Joe Biden has just explained that “this window will not be open for an unlimited time.” Hillary Clinton, on her way out the door as secretary of state, declared, “I don’t think the window can remain open for too much longer.” At least the two were on the same page on plans for the window, although the timing, as ever, remains unclear, as Clinton explained. “I’m not going to put days, weeks or months on it.”

The Europeans, too, are struggling with the timing. Solana retired, but his successor, the EU’s Catherine Ashton, said Tehran has not agreed to her latest groundbreaking proposal. The proposal this time was to meet before the end of January. That didn’t happen. Now the mighty West hopes for Iranian agreement to meet in February. There’s no answer at this writing. But the window is sure closing. It will surely shut by the end of February. That’s when the March window might open.

U.N. nuclear officials say they are increasingly concerned about the possible military dimensions of Iranian nuclear activities particularly in locations were the regime is blocking access to inspectors.

Iran, in the meantime, is doing more than guffawing. In a letter to the U.N. nuclear agency, it reported it is installing much more sophisticated enrichment equipment, which will allow it to greatly accelerate the process of developing highly-enriched uranium. Independent experts say this could be another game-changer.

The White House said — wait for it — this is “another provocation by Iran.” You know those harsh words had Iranian leaders quaking in their boots.

A decade later

The U.S., of course, is on record saying it will do whatever it takes — all options on the table, etc, etc. — to stop Iran’s nukes. But there was some confusion about what exactly it is that Washington wants to stop. In his confirmation hearings for the top defense job, Chuck Hagel said he’s committed to “containment,” but later had to correct himself on the crucial point.

Containment would mean allowing Iran to have a nuclear weapon and then trying to make sure it doesn’t use it. That’s exactly the opposite of what the United States and Europe have said for more than a decade.

Speaking of a decade, it’s now 10 years since the start of negotiations on the issue. Perhaps we should plan a way to mark the occasion.

While the West decides its next move, Iran is busy at home and abroad. A ship filled with Iranian weapons was seized in Yemen, and officials in Tehran have confirmed member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, whose constitutionally mandated job is to spread the Iranian revolution, are in Syria, helping Bashar Assad fight in that country’s civil war, with the help of Hezbollah, Iran’s faithful ally in Lebanon.

To be sure, Western sanctions are taking a painful bite out of the Iranian economy. But, contrary to the impressions from Kofi Annan in 2006, and those of many since then, Tehran continues undeterred in its domestic and international machinations in the world’s most dangerous and unstable region. It is no laughing matter.

The warnings from the West sound more stale every day. At least we know that window will close. We don’t know exactly when, but at some point, either the program will stop, or Iran will have that nuclear arsenal the West vowed so solemnly to prevent it from developing.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.

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