The noose tightens around Iran
With the United Nations Security Council's permanent five - the US, Russia, China, France and Britain - banding together to recommend that Iran be reported to the council, at least for now the clear winner is the US, which has allowed the diplomatic option to play itself out.
The loser is Iran, which seems to have lost the support - or at least understandings - given by Beijing and Moscow that it would not be referred to the UN over its nuclear program.
Nevertheless, Iran has responded by threatened to halt all cooperation with the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), if it is sent to the Security Council when the IAEA meets in Vienna on Thursday.
The Thursday meeting comes after the five major powers agreed that the 35-member IAEA board should "report to the Security Council on the steps required from Iran". But they added that the council should wait until IAEA secretary general Mohamed ElBaradei reports on Iran's nuclear program at a regular IAEA meeting on March 6 before deciding on any action.
Iran is in the process of being isolated. No major power wants to be on its side. Much of the international community does not believe that Tehran does not have intention to develop nuclear weapons. Even Russia - which has earned billions from Iran's various nuclear plants - is not willing to state categorically that Iran would not want to become the next nuclear-armed power.
Tehran had the chance of accepting a Russian proposal that would have enabled Iran to enrich uranium on Russian soil, thereby allaying international concerns that Iran would divert nuclear material for weapon use. However, the Iranian government declared that proposed deal to be insufficient, and insisted it would conduct its nuclear research on its own soil, as per what it says are its legal international rights.
Now China and Russia will go to Tehran and explain the London agreement. They are expected to ask the government to provide "precise answers" to the questions that the IAEA has presented.
But there is more to the London agreement than meets the eye. This, in reality, is a compromise between the US and the EU-3 (France, Germany and Britain) on one side and China and Russia on the other.
The former group wanted to refer Iran to the Security Council immediately, while Beijing and Moscow wanted a more cautious approach. Thus they agreed to allow the referral of Iran to the world body only if it refuses to back down from its resolve to enrich uranium on its own soil. The IAEA is expected to submit its own report on Iran to the world body next month. That would allow time for Iran either to accept the original proposal to enrich uranium on Russian soil or work out some other arrangement with ElBaradei.
In the meantime, the media are reporting that, according to the IAEA, Iran obtained a document on the nuclear black market that "serves no other purpose than to make an atomic bomb". To be fair, a reference to that document was originally made in a long report of the IAEA late last year. In that report, the agency only reported that the document contained descriptions of how to cast "enriched, natural and depleted uranium metal into hemispherical forms".
The IAEA did not go beyond that description. Experts, on the contrary, concluded that the document included discussion of "how to mold highly enriched grade uranium into the core of warheads". Now the IAEA bluntly states that the document in question has a description on "how to cast fissile uranium into metal", and it is "related to the fabrication of nuclear-weapon components".
The fact that Iran obtained that document is ammunition for those countries that want to believe that Iran really wants to develop nuclear weapons, and not secure alternative energy sources as it has all along claimed.
Russia is also reported to have promised the US that in the next 30 days it will persuade Iran to accept the original deal of enriching uranium on its soil. If it were to fail, Moscow has assured that it would back tough diplomatic action against Iran. If Iran changes its mind and accepts the Russian deal, then it is not likely to be referred to the Security Council.
From Iran's perspective, the fact that Moscow and Beijing went along with the London agreement is not a good signal. It was hoping that great-power tensions and disagreement would enable it to count on a veto from Russia and China once the issue went to the UN, but this can't be guaranteed now.
As a related diplomatic maneuver, Iran attempted to use the OPEC card by asking members of that organization to use the oil weapon against the West if it is referred to the UN. However, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is in no mood to cause further turbulence in the international oil market.
At a time when Arab states are worried about a rising tide of democracy and the growing popularity of Islamist parties within their borders, they have no stomach to add further to their worries by alienating the US. Another important driving force that is working against Iran's interests within the framework of OPEC is that no Arab state is eager to see it develop nuclear weapons.
What are Iran's choices? After brewing for several months, the nuclear crisis has reached a crucial point: the ayatollahs will have to decide exactly want they want. If they don't wish to develop nuclear weapons, then the Russian deal of enriching uranium in Russia is good option. That would bring an end to all Western threats against Iran. However, if they really wish to develop nuclear weapons, then they should declare their intentions clearly - and then get ready to face the consequences.
Ehsan Ahrari is a CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.