The Bush Administration, backed by allies in Israel and Europe, is trying hard to spread an unwelcome message: Don’t take the good news about Iran seriously.
They make a compelling case, but a lot of folks don’t want to listen, not at holiday time, not when a weary and dispirited Washington has so much bad news on its plate. Even Republicans can’t wait for Bush to leave town. America’s costly commitment to Iraq seems endless. The housing market is tanking. Congress is useless. Lots of tunnels, not much light.
So the reaction was hardly surprising when a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) expressed “high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. Finally, a small star in a dark sky! Tidings of comfort and joy!
“I think it relaxes everybody,” says Ray Takeyh, the Iranian expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. The NIE “essentially removes the possibility” of military action against Iran. It also means “less support” for a U.N. resolution to beef up sanctions against Tehran. “International solidarity (has) largely dissipated,” Takeyh concludes.
Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates concedes, “The estimate clearly has come at an awkward time. ... It has confused a lot of people around the world in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
That confusion has triggered a counteroffensive – call it Operation Humbug. President Bush stated the basic message: “Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband weighed in, writing in The Financial Times that Tehran still engenders a “lack of trust” in the West. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was even more caustic: “The world must not loosen its grip” on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
As part of their campaign, Washington and its allies are circulating a draft of a new resolution at the United Nations. According to The Washington Post, the measure would impose economic sanctions on a major Iranian bank, as well as the Quds Force, an elite military unit accused of exporting arms and encouraging nuclear development. The aim: Freeze the overseas assets of these institutions and isolate them financially.
In trying to mitigate the impact of the NIE, supporters of additional sanctions make two main points. First, while Iran might have shelved its weapons program, it continues a very active effort to produce a stockpile of enriched uranium and it recently installed 3,000 gas centrifuges in the city of Natanz. Tehran says the material is purely for peaceful purposes – to generate electric power – but that stockpile could easily be converted to military use. Besides, with the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves, Iran hardly needs atomic power to supply domestic energy needs.
Second, Iran is also developing a long-range missile, called the Shahab, capable of reaching Israel and surrounding countries. As arms-control experts Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin wrote in The New York Times, the missile program makes “no military sense without nuclear warheads to put on them.”
Operation Humbug does make sense. The evidence is clear: Iran’s dream of nuclear domination might have been delayed, but it still lives. So does its dream of destabilizing the entire region by supporting armed militias in Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq. As an official at the Israeli Embassy here told us, “Nothing in the Middle East today is divorced from Iran.”
But generating support for tough new sanctions will be difficult. The Bush Administration has lost its credibility. The weapons of mass destruction it invoked to justify the invasion of Iraq were never found. Just weeks ago, President Bush portrayed Iran as an imminent nuclear threat, and he called up nightmare visions of World War III. So his revised message – the sky might not be falling right now, but it could at any time – has lost potency.
Add in China and Russia, who hold veto power at the United Nations. They’ve never been enthusiastic about sanctions and are looking for any excuse to expand economic ties with Iran, not restrict them. Just last week, Beijing and Tehran signed a $2 billion deal, giving a Chinese company the rights to develop Iran’s huge Yadavaran oil field.
This is all unsettling and unfortunate. Bush and his allies are right to warn that Iran remains a major threat to Western interests and its own neighbors. But who wants to hear that, when the holidays are coming and the spirit of the season is all about comfort and joy, not gloom and doom.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.