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Iran Vexes U.S. Policymakers

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated April 5, 2006

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Iran says it is "ready for negotiations" on the issue of large-scale uranium enrichment but will not bend on what it views as its sovereign right to research and engage in small-scale programs for civilian-use purposes (AP). Some experts see this stance in the face of possible UN sanctions as a strategic gambit to drive a wedge between Security Council members already divided on how to prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. China and Russia, both of which hold strong economic ties with Tehran, refuse to entertain the notion of slapping Iran with multilateral sanctions. Even Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says sanctions at this time are a "bad idea" because Iran does not pose an “imminent threat” (Gulf Times).

The United States, France, and Great Britain see things differently, pointing to two decades of Iranian subterfuge aimed at hiding a uranium-enrichment program and two years of largely fruitless negotiations. In their view, last week's UN Security Council statement calling for Iran to suspend enrichment activities presages tougher steps aimed at stopping Iran’s program. Tehran’s nuclear posturing—coupled with comments made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for Israel’s extermination—makes Iran a special case that requires a tough, multilateral response, say U.S. officials. President Bush has stated he is keeping all options on the table.

Policy analysts in the United States have differing opinions about the best course to follow. Views by some U.S. conservatives that Iran's nuclear program would not be an issue were the country to democratize are "dangerous," argues CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh in the National Interest. He writes that this perpective only validates claims by the Iranian president that it is regime change, not nuclear nonproliferation, which most concerns Washington.

Many experts believe that Security Council sanctions against Iran, as explained in this CFR Background Q&A, are unlikely, barring a "provocative act" by Tehran. The Iranians' recent war-game exercises—including a pair of tests of new radar-avoiding underwater missiles—may be an attempt to signal defensive strength to the West, but have left U.S. military officials unimpressed (AP).

As Flynt Leverett, a former senior U.S. policymaker, tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman, Washington's best option remains opening a "strategic dialogue" with Iran, which Tehran has been trying to secure since the 2001 fall of the Taliban. But more hawkish observers, including the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer, continue to push for preventive military action, not unlike Israel's successful strike of Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. Carnegie's Joseph Cirincione tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman that some in the Bush administraton "have already made up their minds" on striking Iran, and that official statements are "very reminiscent of the coordinated campaign that we saw before the Iraq war." The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman (D-CA) said at a recent CFR meeting she was “skeptical” of the intelligence on Iran’s nuclear capacity.

Another emerging school of thought, voiced most recently by MIT's Barry Posen, is that a nuclear-armed Iran, while far from ideal, is not as dangerous as alarmists would believe, and will neither provoke a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East nor result in nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist organizations.

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