Sunday, November 07, 2004

MercuryNews.com | 11/07/2004 | `Chatter' hints of strike on Iran's nuclear sites

MercuryNews.com | 11/07/2004 | `Chatter' hints of strike on Iran's nuclear sites: "`Chatter' hints of strike on Iran's nuclear sites

By Daniel Sneider


Counterterror specialists look for ``chatter'' in Islamic extremist circles preceding an attack. There is a lot of chatter going on today in Washington -- only this time, it is about an American attack on Iran.

In seminars and hallways, there is eager anticipation of an airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Sure, the talk goes, we may not get all those buried nuclear labs. But a few waves of cruise missiles and bombers will set Iran's program back several years, enough time to pursue regime change in Tehran.

The Iran buzz is loud enough to have prompted an unusual statement by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Thursday that any attack on Iran would be ``inconceivable.'' In a message meant for Washington and for countrymen nervous about joining yet another war, Straw added: ``I don't see any circumstances in which military action would be justified against Iran, full stop.''

Package of concessions

Straw spoke as negotiators from Britain, France and Germany were about to meet in Paris with the Iranians. The Europeans are offering a package of concessions, from trade to nuclear power plants, to get Iran to agree to an indefinite suspension of its program to enrich uranium.

The ability to enrich uranium is not in itself proof of a nuclear weapons program but it would put Iran only months away from being able to build a bomb. Iranian leaders, while denying any interest in nuclear weapons, portray the enrichment program as a matter of national security.

``The centers of global power, who wish to monopolize the entire world, are opposed to any development which helps a nation to achieve national independence, self-reliance and national strength,'' Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said at Friday prayers in Tehran.

Despite the tough talk, however, Iran's negotiators have hinted they may be ready for suspension of their program, though not indefinitely.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was eagerly awaiting the outcome of those talks -- still ongoing at press time. He is currently drafting a status report on Iran's nuclear program, to be issued Nov. 12, ahead of an IAEA meeting Nov. 25. The report will confirm that Iran has been experimenting with all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle but that there is still no concrete evidence of a link to a weapons program.

Bush administration hard-liners are dismissive of ElBaradei and of the European-led talks. They expect the talks to fail -- while refusing repeated entreaties from ElBaradei and the Europeans to directly engage the Iranians. They aim to head to the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions against Iran.

But the case against Iran is far from clear and unlikely to gain full support, including from Russia and China. If the sanctions bid fails however, those Bush officials will argue that the United Nations has once again wilted in the face of a proliferation threat, a la Iraq.

ElBaradei continues to trust President Bush's assurances, given to him personally, that the United States sees only a diplomatic solution to this problem.

But he did not hesitate, in an address delivered Thursday to Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, to draw sharp lines with the Bush administration.

Lessons of Iraq

ElBaradei pointedly laid out the lessons of Iraq. ``The first point to be made is that the inspections were working,'' he said. That is confirmed, he argued, by the report issued by the administration's Iraq Survey Group, confirming the IAEA's conclusion before the war began that the Iraqi nuclear program was shut down.

``The second point to be made is that we need to exercise maximum restraint before resorting to military force,'' he continued. ``The Iraq experience should tell us that unless extreme conditions exist to justify pre-emptive action against a suspected weapons-of-mass-destruction program, diplomacy in all its forms, including maximum pressure, coupled with credible verification, should be the primary avenue of choice.''

The next few weeks will probably determine what the avenue of choice will be with Iran. We hope every diplomatic option will be fully explored. But if Iran fails to reach a deal with the IAEA and the Europeans, the chatter favoring a military solution will rise to a din.

DANIEL SNEIDER is foreign-affairs columnist for the Mercury News. His column appears on Sunday and Thursday. You can contact him at dsneider@mercurynews.com."

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