Diplomacy Stalls as Iran's Nuclear Program Advances

Critics of current U.S. policy say new approaches, and new incentives, are needed.


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility.

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Iran's determined campaign to enrich uranium—highlighted this week by the announcement that it was installing 6,000 more fuel-producing centrifuges to its current stable of 3,000—is spurring more criticism of the Bush administration for its refusal to negotiate with Iran as long as it is making nuclear fuel.

President Bush's approach, in short, is that the United States should not negotiate directly with Iran until it suspends work on uranium enrichment and toward the future reprocessing of plutonium as demanded by the U.N. Security Council. Those are two potential routes to nuclear bomb fuel, in the view of U.S. and many western officials. Iran says its intentions lie in peaceful energy production and research.

The Bush administration has also laid out a goal of no nuclear fuel production inside Iran while raising the possibility of support for a Russian proposal to host on its soil such a facility for Iranian reactors. The spent fuel would then be removed from Iran under the idea, which is aimed at taking Iran out of the proliferation-sensitive business of actually making the fuel on its own territory.

But dissatisfaction is building with the fact that three U.N. Security Council resolutions—and assorted other financial and political pressures from Washington and European capitals—are producing no policy change in Tehran. Russia and China's reluctance to step up sanctions dramatically is also growing.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials consistently vow to persist with nuclear-fuel manufacture.

Indeed, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week hailed what he called a technological "breakthrough" with the near-term installation of more sophisticated, faster-spinning centrifuges at Iran's Natanz enrichment facility. Though such announcements in the past have, to some analysts, appeared exaggerated compared with actual Iranian capabilities, this one served to underscore the sense of unmovable stalemate.

Iran's "nuclear victory," Ahmadinejad said, "is the start of the ever-increasing destruction of the imperialistic state," a typical Iranian allusion to the United States.

For good measure, the Iranians also announced that a uranium ore processing plant in Ardakan, in central Iran, would be completed within a year.

But some high-profile critics are beginning to conclude that the Bush administration now needs to budge from its broadly hard-line stance on Iran—one officially shared by key European countries.

"The perfect may become the enemy of the good," Thomas Pickering, a former under secretary of state for political affairs, said this week. "Time is not on our side." He calls the West's aim of zero enrichment in Iran "increasingly more remote as a possibility."

Adds David Albright, a physicist who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, "Iran never loses an opportunity to put nuclear facts on the ground." Albright argues that despite years of effort, the Bush administration has "failed to stop any movement toward Iran's nuclear capability." He spoke, with Pickering, at a conference put on by the National Iranian American Council.

Pickering's critique follows a March 20 New York Review of Books article—written by him and analysts William Luers and Jim Walsh—proposing "new thinking" on Iran. They propose dropping the U.S. insistence on no enrichment inside of Iran and instead focusing on a multinational enrichment program in Iran that would fall under strict antiproliferation safeguards. They also urge opening talks with Iran without preconditions.

Publicly, at least, the administration is revealing no indication that is moving to soften its stand. "We're going to continue pursuing the diplomacy related to Iran to try to get them to the table," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said following Ahmadinejad's announcement. "They have to meet certain conditions in order to do that."

But some of Washington's diplomatic partners are already thinking about new ways to break the stalemate. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov predicts that the United States and other powers involved in Iran strategy would offer new incentives to Iran in the areas of security, energy, and economy. That group of countries will meet in mid-April.