Is Iran backing down on its plans to build a nuclear weapon? Some Western observers may be encouraged to think so after reading reports saying that Iran has decided to resume negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency about monitoring its program. Iran has been stonewalling the United Nations Agency for months and has prevented inspectors from visiting the Parchin site where military nuclear research has been conducted. As the New York Times reports, an Iranian news agency has also claimed that new and more sophisticated devices for enriching uranium being installed at the Natanz site have been designed so as to ensure that the product created by the process won’t be useable for weapons.
If true, both developments could be considered hopeful signs that Iran is responding to the pressure created by international economic sanctions in a way that may lead to a solution to the nuclear impasse. Even if that is a bit optimistic even for those who are still convinced that a window of diplomacy exists to end the dispute, it could at least mean that Iran is desirous of slowing down the pace of escalation of the conflict leaving more time for a deal to be worked out.
But after a decade of Iranian deceptions and diplomatic dead ends, taking this information at face value is the sort of mistake that Tehran has come to count on the West making on a regular basis. The one thing we know for sure is that Iran is installing more centrifuges and that the commitment of the Islamist regime to achieving its nuclear goal is undiminished. Moreover, the refusal of the Iranians to engage in direct talks with the United States shows that the only kind of diplomatic process it wants is a multilateral one with weak-willed Europeans like EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that will let it get away with more delay. That’s why these mixed signals are far more likely to be just the latest in a long series of prevarications designed to convince the West that it has more time than actually exists before it is too late to do anything about the Iranian nuclear threat than a genuine breakthrough.
The claim that Iran is pulling back on its enrichment activities and diverting more of its fuel to research reactors may or not be true. If that is the case, then this would justify the continued patience of the Obama administration which has refused to set red lines about the nuclear threat that might give teeth to the threats it has issued about leaving nothing off the table when it comes to stopping the Iranians. A longer timeline before the Iranian stockpile of weapons-grade nuclear material would allow the P5+1 diplomatic process to be restarted and conducted with the sort of patience that the Europeans have always demonstrated when it comes to dealing with the Iranians.
But the very fact that this is exactly what Iran has always wanted the West to believe calls for some skepticism about the fuel conversion story. Without full access to all the relevant nuclear sites in Iran, it is impossible to be sure whether promises about enrichment are real or not. But even if some limited inspections are resumed with the IAEA, that can’t be considered a guarantee of progress since the Iranians have already shown their desire to conceal their actions as well as to deceive the inspectors.
Whether or not the enrichment process has slowed, there is no denying that the Iranians are still building their uranium stockpile and that sooner or later — with the emphasis on sooner — they will have enough to build a bomb.
In his State of the Union speech last night, President Obama devoted but one line to the issue that could prove to be the most fateful in his second term:
The leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.
These are fine words but the problem is that everything this administration and its European partners have done up until now has convinced the Iranians that they have nothing to worry about. The foolish attempts at engagement and the watered down sanctions that were belated implemented have done little to impress upon the ayatollahs the stern resolution that the president claims exists to halt their nuclear gambit. If the president buys into these latest mixed that may be exactly the mistake the Iranians are hoping for.