WASHINGTON (Dec. 4)
As time dwindles for diplomatic efforts to curtail Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington is criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of the issue. The United States has endorsed a European Union plan that would allow Iran to continue its nuclear development as long as it leaves uranium enrichment, the final stage of converting uranium to fuel, to Russia. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the hope is that such a deal would keep Iran from bringing its uranium to weapon-grade level.
"We’re prepared to see if the Russians can explore something that may bring the Iranians around to the recognition that they cannot enrich and reprocess on their territory, that they have a credibility problem with the international community as to the fuel cycle," Rice told USA Today last week. "We’ll see whether it works."
Within days of Rice’s interview, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee delivered a rare public criticism of the Bush administration.
"Last week’s decision allowed Iran to win a critical round in its game of cat-and-mouse with the international community," AIPAC said in an email earlier this week headlined "IMPORTANT — AIPAC press statement critical of Administration’s recent decisions on Iran policy."
AIPAC and Israel had hoped that the United States would nudge the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, into referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council last week for sanctions. The IAEA board met last week in Vienna and deferred a decision on whether to refer Iran to the Security Council while Britain, Germany and France — the "E.U. 3" — try to negotiate with Iran.
A senior Bush administration official said Iran was clearly in non-compliance, but the United States wanted to make sure Russia would not exercise its veto if the matter goes to the Security Council.
"We’re satisfied that reporting Iran’s non-compliance to the Security Council will advance the issue," said the official, who spoke anonymously because the matter is still under negotiation. "But because Russia is in a position to veto, we want to make sure Russia is cooperative when we get to the Security Council."
The negotiations are to begin within two weeks, and no one expects the IAEA to consider the matter again until at least February.
But that could be too late, according to an assessment by Maj.-Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, Israel’s military intelligence chief.
"If, by the end of March," the IAEA board "does not succeed in transferring the issue to the Security Council, it will be possible to say that the diplomatic effort has failed," Zeevi-Farkash reportedly told the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee this week.
The U.S. official said the Bush administration does not agree with that date. "There’s a difference, it’s not huge," the official said. "But Israel sees it as a bit closer than we do."
In a deal brokered last year by the E.U. 3, Iran agreed to shut down its nuclear fuel-cycle activities. That ended this summer after critical E.U. and IAEA reports suggested that Iran was not allowing inspectors full access, and uncovered earlier deceptions by Iran.
Iran defiantly resumed its nuclear fuel cycle; moreover, its new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a radical who has ratcheted up anti-Israel rhetoric, publicly calling for Israel’s destruction.
On Sunday, Iran announced that it plans to build 20 more nuclear reactors. Construction is to begin on the first two of the new reactors in March, one with Russian help.
Israel saw in the statement further cause for concern that Iran soon will attain nuclear weapons.
"The danger is a global danger, and I think it is entirely clear that we cannot allow situation to emerge where Iran becomes a nuclear power," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said. Israel’s military chief of staff said Sunday that he doubts diplomatic pressure will stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
"The fact that the Iranians are successful time after time in getting away from international pressure … encourages them to continue their nuclear project," Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz told foreign journalists. "I don’t believe for the time being that political pressure will bear any fruit."
Iran says it has no interest in enriching uranium to weapons levels, and wants only to convert it to fuel for peaceful energy purposes. But AIPAC and Israel are concerned that allowing Iran any uranium conversion capability would bring it dangerously close to weaponization if the E.U.-Russia deal falls through.
"The Russian proposal allowing Iran to possess a key step in the nuclear fuel cycle is a dangerous concession made at a time of continued Iranian intransigence," AIPAC said in a memo accompanying its statement. Senior Israeli officials brought the matter up in a strategic dialogue session this week with their U.S. counterparts.
The Americans, headed by Nicholas Burns, an undersecretary of state, said they agreed that Iran ultimately should face sanctions, but didn’t want to bring the matter to the Security Council until they were certain that Russia and China would not veto sanctions.
There likely would be a majority on the Security Council for sanctions, but Russia and China — who are wary of nuclear oversight because of their own nuclear programs — have indicated they would exercise their veto right.
The U.S. believes that bringing Russia into the mix would give it a motive to back sanctions eventually. Israel and AIPAC worry that could take too long, and they favor going to the Security Council now, if only to show Iran how serious they are.
Moreover, Israel believes that a warning statement from the Security Council — rather than full sanctions — likely would not be vetoed now. Getting Russia and China on board with such a warning now would make it harder for them to veto sanctions later if Iran continues to defy warnings, the thinking goes.
Another option is to operate outside the U.N. framework. Europeans have suggested they would consider sanctions if the United States presses hard; Iran does a great deal of business with Europe, and such sanctions could have some bite.
Another factor informing resistance to the E.U.-Russian formula is that advocates of sanctions do not regard Russia as entirely trustworthy when it comes to Iran. Russia has an array of defense and nuclear investments in the Islamic republic, and Russian media reported Friday that Russia and Iran have just signed a $1 billion missile deal.
The U.S. official said the Russian proposal as it now stands was not acceptable.
The United States wants to shut down all fuel conversion in Iran, while the Russians want the Iranians to be able to continue converting uranium to fuel, reserving only the final enrichment stage for Russia.
"We don’t think conversion in Iran makes sense," the official said. There’s enough existing fuel on the open market to power the single nuclear reactor Iran says it needs, the official said, and the amount of fuel that a separate conversion process would yield is excessive. "No country needs this much fuel to power a single reactor."
The undercurrent of the U.S. strategy appears to be to allow Russia to realize how stubborn the Iranians are, a process that would finally drive Russia into the camp in favor of sanctions. "We were supportive of the efforts of the E.U. 3," the official said, referring to a failed agreement last year to shut down Iran’s nuclear cycle. "They came to a dead end. Now we’re trying to be supportive of Russia’s efforts."
AIPAC prides itself on its close working relationship with the Bush administration, and officials at the pro-Israel group suggested they would not have issued such public criticism if they didn’t consider the matter urgent. Iran has been a top
AIPAC priority for more than a decade, and the organization believes the Islamic republic poses a grave danger to Israel.
If it comes down to a political battle, signs are that AIPAC could muster strong support in Congress to press the White House to demand sanctions on Iran.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Middle East subcommittee, signaled outspoken opposition to the E.U.-Russia deal weeks ago.
"It is baffling that the Europeans still seek to appease and arm the terrorist regime in Teheran," she said in a Nov. 10 statement. "To add insult to injury, they want to entrust Russia, a nation with an already dubious record regarding Iran’s nuclear and missile proliferation, to process Iran’s uranium."
Ros-Lehtinen noted that her own Iran sanctions bill has the support of three quarters of her House colleagues, though she’s trying to line up additional co-sponsors.
"By allowing Iran nuclear capabilities, the Europeans are giving the match to the pyromaniac," she said.