According to excerpts from Tehran’s state-run Kayhan newspaper quoted by Amir Taheri on July 28 in the New York Post, the Iranian regime views the mixed signals from the Obama administration as unambiguous. Hillary Clinton’s statements last week about the U.S. nuclear umbrella apparently did not generate a sense of confusion in Tehran:
“America’s strategic needs in the region are so intense that the Obama administration is prepared to accept the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran,” [Kayhan] said in an editorial Sunday. It claimed that the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already informed allies in the region of that “acceptance.”
The paper said: “In her speech last week, Clinton accepted the assumption of a nuclear-armed Iran. She only tried to show that the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran has been exaggerated and that the classical doctrine of deterrence through Mutually Assured Destruction could work with Iran as it did with other nuclear powers.”
Taheri goes on to note that the Kayhan editorial “is of special interest because it implicitly admits that the Islamic Republic is at least planning to develop a nuclear arsenal. It contains none of the usual denials and claims that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful and that the uranium it is enriching is for producing electricity.” In Taheri’s view, the editorial outlines Iran’s perception of an emerging U.S. bargaining position — the hope for Iranian endorsement of a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian Arabs in exchange for de facto recognition of Iran as a nuclear power.
The Iranians can be pardoned for the clarity of their deductions. In addition to Clinton’s history of speaking in the terms of nuclear deterrence, Obama and Secretary Gates have been consistent in suggesting a deadline of “this fall” for Iran to avoid being targeted by fresh sanctions, with the UN General Assembly meeting in late September posited as a key marker on the time line. As the latest IAEA report from June 5 makes clear, however, by then Iran expects to start fueling the reactor at Bushehr. The Bushehr reactor is not the highest-priority facility for a weapons program, but once it is fueled, targeting it with air strikes would likely release radioactive contaminants into the Persian Gulf. Israel timed the Osirak strike in 1981 before the reactor was to be fueled, to avoid that concern.
The technological significance to a weapons program of getting the reactor in operation would not be as great as the political significance of bringing it online before any effective U.S. deadline — and without intervention by Israel. Iran could achieve no greater political triumph in 2009 than putting the Bushehr reactor in operation. If Amir Taheri is right, we should have a pretty good idea how the regime hopes to bring that off.