The World Obama Inherits: Iran’s Nuclear Challenge

Tehran's apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons will test Obama's faith in power of diplomacy.

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Among the many international challenges facing a young Obama administration, Iran's defiant pursuit of nuclear capabilities will be one of the most difficult to resolve. The government in Tehran has ignored three hard-to-get sanctions resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council demanding that it suspend its nuclear work and come to the negotiating table. Iran has weathered the modest U.N. penalties as well as those instituted separately by the United States and the European Union.

Despite the international opprobrium for pursuing what U.S. and European officials believe is a drive for nuclear weapons—not just nuclear energy and research, as Tehran says—Iran has been making significant progress toward what, in a few years, would be a vast capacity to enrich uranium, as well as a less developed infrastructure to manufacture plutonium.

Experts such as former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay expect that Iran could be in a position to make a nuclear bomb in two to five years. They also believe that it is unlikely Iran can be dissuaded from attaining the technical know-how to enrich uranium to bomb-grade levels. The prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon could render the Islamic republic the dominant regional power, but it could also inspire others in the Middle East to launch their own efforts to join the nuclear weapons club. Or it might prompt a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, with unpredictable consequences.

Obama will inherit a troubled diplomatic legacy. The Bush administration joined a European-led negotiating effort rather late in the game and resisted direct contacts with Iran after the first, successful stages of the Iraq war, when U.S. leverage was high. As time has passed, Russia and China have grown increasingly skeptical of slapping on more punishments. And U.S. tensions with Russia over its invasion of Georgia, European missile defense, and other issues make Russia less likely to give ground on Iran.

The key negotiating countries have dangled before Iran the prospect of economic, political, and security inducements if it would stop all its nuclear work.

Instead, Iran's refusal to suspend has stiffened. "As far as we're concerned, the nuclear issue is resolved," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at the United Nations in September. The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, meanwhile, has described the current situation as a "deadlock" and warned that Iran is not fully cooperating with its probe. (One of the things the IAEA is investigating is the possible military dimensions of the Iranian effort, including whether it might be aimed at learning how to build a missile-capable warhead.) The IAEA says Iran has received unspecified "foreign expertise."

Though U.S. interest in considering military strikes to disrupt Iran's nuclear effort appears to have waned, Obama follows in the long tradition of refusing to rule out any option. He has called for an assertive style of "direct diplomacy" with Iran but regards an Iranian atomic bomb as "unacceptable."

If he delivers a kick-start to stalled diplomatic efforts, his arrival in the White House could put on the spot Iranian hard-liners, who oppose any accommodation with the United States.

Ahmadinejad sent Obama a congratulatory letter—the first such communication to an incoming American leader in the nearly 30 years since the strongly anti-U.S. Islamic revolution. But since then, Iranian hard-liners seem to be regrouping. They have charged that Obama differs little from President Bush on Iran. Indeed, some appear to be of a mind to put up obstacles to full-on negotiations with Obama's incoming diplomats, perhaps including hard-to-accept preconditions.