In Iran the clock is ticking. In fact, three clocks are ticking simultaneously — in the country’s nuclear laboratories, at the negotiating table and on the streets. Its future depends on which clock ticks fastest.
Demonstrations filled the streets yesterday, accompanied by the clear sound of a political crackdown as the regime’s supporters and opponents squared up. But for all the sound and fury the two sides were like boxers circling in the ring. It was not a decisive moment. The political clock is still ticking.
On the nuclear front matters appear to be moving faster. Iran now has thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The uranium has certainly been enriched to a concentration (approximately 4 per cent) suitable for producing electricity. But yesterday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed Iran had produced uranium enriched to a concentration of 20 per cent, only days after announcing that as an ambition. Is this just bluster? We cannot be sure. What we do know is that from there it is only a short step to the 90 per cent concentration required to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. Iran appears to have encountered technical problems enriching large amounts of uranium, but it could still generate significant quantities of weapons-grade fuel in one to three years, if not sooner.
It is not yet clear whether Iran intends to go so far as to produce, test and field nuclear weapons. Iranian officials might decide to halt their programme just short of that, calculating that Iran could garner most of the benefits of being perceived as a nuclear weapons state without incurring most of the costs. Either outcome — Iran as an actual nuclear weapons state or a “threshold” one — would have profoundly destabilising consequences for the region and the world.
Not that the current situation is stable. Iran could provoke an Israeli or American preventive military strike against its nuclear facilities even before that line is crossed — something sure to prompt Iranian retaliation throughout the region. Oil supplies could well be disrupted at a time when world economic recovery remains fragile. An Iranian nuclear weapon would almost certainly lead several of Iran’s neighbours to develop or acquire nuclear weapons of their own, leaving the Middle East perched uneasily on a nuclear precipice. In terms of global risk, Iran is now centre stage.
Around the negotiating table the clock is ticking more slowly. Talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, Great Britain, France, Russia and China — plus Germany have failed to produce an accord, even though the precondition that Iran suspend all enrichment has been dropped. What they want is for Iran to halt its independent enrichment programme, and place all its uranium and associated technology and facilities under international supervision. In exchange, Iran could expect the relaxation of existing economic sanctions, access to nuclear power and any number of political and strategic benefits.
That argument is rational, but the incentives don’t appear to be working. It is time to get tougher. Many in Washington back additional sanctions that target the Revolutionary Guard, the elite force of about 100,000 that increasingly dominates Iran’s politics, security policy and economy. Indeed, 31 years after the Islamic revolution that established an unprecedented fusion of clerical and political rule, Iran increasingly resembles a traditional authoritarian state where security forces dominate most aspects of public life.
Russia and China are likely to resist anything too muscular lest they alienate Iran’s Government. And we cannot be sure what effect sanctions will have on the regime’s stability or decision making. This last point may be the most telling. The history of economic sanctions shows that they do not produce significant policy changes (and certainly not quickly) in areas that governments judge to involve their vital national interests.
Which brings us to the politics of regime change. Resistance to clerical rule has long existed, but it increased dramatically in the aftermath of the fraudulent June 12 presidential elections. The more the protests were repressed, the greater they grew, culminating in the Green Movement, which now poses a serious challenge to the Government.Yesterday gave further evidence of the Government’s determination to retain the upper hand. Iran’s rulers upped the intimidation, arresting opponents, shutting down internet access and deploying baton-wielding thugs.
It is time the West made it clear that it is on the side of the protesters. Neither European governments nor the United States can usher in fundamental reform, but they can energise and lend rhetorical support to the opposition, helping it to communicate with the outside world and stay abreast of what is going on.
It is anything but clear that these three timelines — the nuclear, the diplomatic and the political — will work out in a way that serves the world’s interests. It is quite possible that Iran’s nuclear work may progress faster than negotiations. Indeed, Iran’s policy may be to play for time while its scientists overcome their technical difficulties. Similarly, it might take months to gain international support for more robust sanctions and even then years for them to have an impact. Again, lab work is likely to outpace diplomacy.
This is why the West can no longer remain on the sidelines. Our leaders must speak out for the Iranian people who seek change. The goal must be to accelerate the political timeline, If we don’t the work in Iran’s laboratories will force Europe, the United States and Israel to choose between two distinctly unattractive choices: accepting a nuclear Iran or attacking it.
Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of War of Necessity, War of Choice: a Memoir of Two Iraq Wars.