On November 18, Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki rejected a proposal that his country should export some 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium for further processing abroad. On November 20, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany met in Brussels and urged Iran to reconsider. "I continue to hold out the prospect that they may decide to walk through this door," explained Barack Obama, though he noted at the same time, "Over the next several weeks, we will be developing a package of potential steps . . . that would indicate our seriousness to Iran." Russia's foreign ministry, as usual, contradicted him: "There is currently no discussion on working out additional sanctions against Iran."
So was this merely the latest manifestation of the same fruitless maneuvering that has gone on every year since the struggle over Iran's nuclear weapons began in 2003? Not at all. It was not the ploys of the Iranians that provoked astonishment at the most recent negotiations in Geneva and Vienna, but rather the attitude of the United States.
Whereas in the past Washington sought to increase pressure on Iran, and Europe stepped on the brakes, today it is Obama who is stepping on the brakes while France and Great Britain push for sanctions. Whereas George W. Bush denounced the Islamism of the Iranian regime, his successor attempts to ingratiate himself by offering compliments and apologies. Whereas before it was the Europeans who packaged their failures as successful "dialogue," now it is Washington that does so.
The date that marked the high point of the old American Iran policy was December 23, 2006. On that day, the Bush administration obtained a unanimous resolution from the U.N. Security Council calling on the mullahs to cease all uranium enrichment and plutonium projects without delay. At the same time, sanctions were placed on Iran in order to back up these demands. The sanctions prohibit other countries from engaging in nuclear trade with Iran. The material effect of these sanctions is limited. But their legal importance remains considerable. In Resolution 1737, the Security Council classified Iran's nuclear program as a threat to international peace. In the event that Tehran failed to comply, the resolution for the first time threatened additional pressure under Article 41 of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. Article 41 lists nonmilitary measures that may be taken to enforce compliance with U.N. resolutions, including the complete or partial cessation of economic and political relations, the severing of all transport connections, and the interruption of postal, telegraphic, and other means of communication.
The date marking the arrival of the new American Iran policy is September 11, 2009. On that day, the Obama administration agreed to talks with Iran in which neither Iran's uranium enrichment activities nor its newly discovered and hitherto secret facility in Qom would be on the agenda. The talks would take place under conditions dictated exclusively by Tehran. This fact alone was tantamount to a form of defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The uranium enrichment facility being constructed in Qom is hidden deep under a mountain. It is designed for military purposes, and the Iranian ministry of defense is in charge of it. So it is all the more puzzling that the "5+1" powers (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States plus Germany) have thus far refrained from referring the matter to the Security Council. It is even stranger that none of the powers has yet called for work on the facility to be stopped. Instead, they are valiantly demanding that the Iranian regime do what it in any case offered to do following the discovery of the facility: namely, submit it to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In this regard as well, the very purpose of Resolution 1737 is being foiled.
Obama, moreover, appears to have no problem offering Iran assistance for precisely those uranium enrichment activities that, per the decision of the international community, are supposed to be suspended. The context for Obama's offer is provided by a small research reactor at the University of Tehran that runs on 19.75 percent enriched uranium. Once uranium has been enriched to 20 percent, it is considered weaponizable.