International Herald Tribune
On Iran, U.S. stumbles and Europe grumbles
By John Vinocur
Monday, December 10, 2007
PARIS: Every debacle has its core of black comedy. For a hoot, here's Condoleezza Rice's version of the Bush administration's strategy on Iran, now that U.S. intelligence agencies say the mullahs halted the weapons-development segment of their nuclear program in 2003:
It's "recommitment to our two-track approach," she said.
According to The Associated Press, the two tracks referred to were sanctions and diplomacy.
You may laugh now. The administration's real two-track approach was sanctions and the threat of bombing Iran's nuclear sites.
With the publication of a new National Intelligence Estimate last week, that threat, tacitly approved by France and Britain, and kind of wishfully understood by Germany as targeted woofin', has vanished as a politically credible lever.
George Bush has said all options remain on the table, but those Europeans, including officials who saw the idea of American military action as a verbal plus in twisting the Iranians' arm (talk of a Third World War aside), now consider the threat squandered.
More sanctions? Find a sane bookmaker who would waste time producing odds in their favor.
As for the diplomacy track, since the United States wouldn't talk directly to Iran while the administration held a stick, an approach argued for months in this corner, we return to more black comedy:
Did you hear the one about what Saeed Jalili, Iran's newly named nuclear negotiator, told Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy representative, when they met Nov. 30 in London - before the intelligence report's release?
According to a Western official who briefed reporters immediately afterwards, Jalili's version of diplomatic outreach was to say: "Everything in the past is past, and with me, you start over. None of your proposals has any standing."
Still, the comedy got blackest in relation to the standing of the report itself.
An unnamed senior official described by The New York Times as close to the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN organization often derided as a soft on Iran by the Bush administration, scorned the U.S. agencies' estimate as mushy.
"To be frank," the official said, "we are more skeptical. We don't buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous with Iran."
In France, where the government of Nicolas Sarkozy, acting in coordination with Washington, has made vast efforts to enact separate European Union sanctions going beyond those of the UN Security Council, the report was characterized by an expert on nuclear proliferation as occasionally brushing close to the "hallucinatory."
The expert, who requested not to be identified more specifically, said it was politically striking that the estimate began its "key judgments" section with its assertion that the Iranians halted work on weapons. This was described as notable since the report also acknowledged that "intelligence gaps" led two agencies, the National Intelligence Council and the Department of Energy, to question whether this conclusion had sufficient quality of information and corroboration.
Referring to the wide range of Iran's possible weaponization activities (development of explosives and work on design, for example), those two agencies were only "moderately certain" that the entire Iranian weapons project came to a halt, the expert noted.
Another laugh-line for a world audience singled out from the NIE: "We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult."
As for the U.S. agencies' assertion that Iran would not be capable of producing enough plutonium for a weapon until 2015 - while saying it was possible but very unlikely Tehran could have enough highly enriched uranium needed for a bomb by late 2009 - a second French expert described France's secret services as more pessimistic in their evaluations of Iranian capabilities.
Bruno Tertrais of the Fondation Pour la Recherche Stratégique, an independent nongovernmental organization, said 2010-2015 was considered here as too far off as an active Iranian threat threshold.
"United States intelligence exists with a kind of Iraq effect, and American analysts have a tendency to prolong certain curves," Tertrais said. "What results is a certain conservatism."
Add another improbable notion to all this: the report's finding that it was international pressure that led to Iran stopping its weapons program in 2003.
In a country where Jacques Chirac suggested as recently as this January that the world could well live with Iran producing a few nukes - "the danger does not lie in the bomb it will have" - the only conclusive pressure recalled from 2003 is the United States' invasion of Iraq, Iran's neighbor, and the Americans seeming but short-lived victory at the time.
What of international pressure now? Sarkozy has no doubts about Iran's intentions, but nothing condemns him to be linked step by step to the Bush administration's stumbling.
After a news conference here alongside Angela Merkel last week, The AP's French language news service reported that Sarkozy said, "France wants coherence: if the United Nations has decided on sanctions, it's certainly not abnormal that Europe, on its own, decides for them."
Good. A day later, I read the Élysée Palace's transcription of the news conference on its official Web site, and the phrase wasn't there. Go figure.
Something with a roughly parallel feel is out there in Germany. Ruprecht Polenz, Merkel's Christian Democratic ally, who is chairman of the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee, is urging that halting uranium enrichment be dropped as a condition for new talks with Iran, and that no additional Security Council sanctions come into force.
If the above sounds like disintegrating Western leverage or resolve in getting Iran to drop its nuclear plans, you won't get an argument here.
In the early 1980s, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt urged the United States to be more "berechenbar" (calculable) in its international dealings. Henry Kissinger responded back then that unpredictability was a superpower prerogative that should not be easily surrendered.
These days, the Bush administration has become cripplingly calculable.
You can superimpose that fact on an unhappy new reality: In this dispute, only the Iranians retain unpredictability as a credible weapon.