Both Iran and West Fear a Trap on Deal
Just before international inspectors on Sunday were guided for the first time into an Iranian nuclear enrichment plant whose existence was a state secret until recently, the speaker of Iran's Parliament warned his countrymen to beware of American efforts to "cheat" Iran out of the nuclear fuel that has become the country's currency in reasserting its powerб, The New York Times reported.
In Washington, the concern is precisely the reverse. Here, even some of President Obama's aides are wary that Iran is setting a trap, trying to turn the administration's signature offer of engagement into a process of endless negotiations. They are acutely aware of the fact that the clock is ticking: While talks continue, Iran is steadily enriching more uranium, the fuel it would need if it ever decided to sprint for the bomb, much as Israel and India did 30 years ago, followed by Pakistan and North Korea.
That struggle - pitting Iran's fears of falling for a Western conspiracy to neutralize its "strategic reserve" against the West's fears of being lured into an Iranian plot to buy time for a secret nuclear bomb program - lies at the heart of the complex set of moves and countermoves now being played out around the globe.
It will probably be several weeks before the results of the inspection of the newly revealed Qum nuclear enrichment plant are known. Iran has said it will give a definitive answer before then about whether it will go along with a deal to turn over much of its current stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia for further processing, so that it can be returned to Iran for use in a reactor that makes medical isotopes.
For days now, Iran's leadership has been fighting over whether to take that deal, with political opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all but declaring that he is being duped.
Among them is the speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, who is Iran's former nuclear negotiator. On Saturday, he was widely quoted in the Iranian press as saying that the West was trying to deceive Iran and might never return its enriched uranium. He argued that other nations were obliged under the rules of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to sell Iran new fuel. Mr. Obama tried to head off that possibility this weekend with calls to allies and to President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia, urging them to press Iran to give up its stockpile.
The rare public argument under way in Iran about how to deal with the demands suggests that Mr. Obama has already achieved one of the major objectives of his engagement strategy: to force out into the open the splits in the Iranian leadership. As R. Nicholas Burns, the lead State Department strategist on Iran during the Bush administration, told Congress over the summer, President George W. Bush's refusal to negotiate with Iran for eight years meant that the United States never forced the country's ruling mullahs to justify their actions to their own people, who have suffered from sanctions and may be less interested in the nuclear program than in better relations with the world.
"I think that for the first time, the Iranians are really on the defensive," Mr. Burns said recently.
Iran's leaders may find themselves playing a more complex game of defense in the coming weeks. They appear to have been forced into revealing the existence of the Qum enrichment complex after learning that Western intelligence agencies had discovered it.
Now, they have to contain the damage. In interviews last week in Vienna, the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, diplomats preparing for the inspection of the site near the holy city of Qum made it clear that the West would insist on far more than just visits to the heavily bunkered plant, hard up against a base for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. The inspectors view Qum as an outer layer of a ball of string - and they plan on pulling at the strands to discover other secret sites, if there are any.
"How many times have the Iranians told us, 'We've revealed everything,' only to come back and admit that there is much, much more?" a senior European diplomat, who has been deeply involved in developing the strategy to confront Tehran, said last week.
The Iranians contend that they have been under no legal obligation to report the construction of the enrichment plant until it was ready to operate, an argument that the atomic energy agency dismisses as a self-interested misreading of the rules. That is just one example of Iran's central argument, that it is abiding by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but that it has often been driven to covert efforts because the West is plotting to deprive the country of its right to develop its own nuclear technology.
But White House officials are extremely aware of their own political and practical vulnerabilities in dealing with Iran. The Iranian nuclear program flowered in recent years. The country possessed only minute amounts of nuclear fuel when the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, and by the time the Bush administration left office, it had the fuel for roughly one weapon. There is a dispute among the allies over whether it halted or continued its efforts to design a nuclear weapon.
But few in the White House doubt how the narrative will be written if the Iranians actually gain a weapons ability on Mr. Obama's watch. That is why Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who as a presidential candidate dismissed Mr. Obama's engagement policy with Iran as naïve, last week warned anew that "the process of engagement cannot be open-ended." The strategy behind the negotiations that unfolded in Vienna last week was pretty straightforward. If Iran was truly interested in peaceful uses for its nuclear fuel, it should accept the West's help in using its own stockpile to fuel the reactor in Tehran that makes medical isotopes. If they rejected the deal, it should be easier, in theory, to get Russia and China to join sanctions.
Many people at the negotiating table expect Iran to try to drag out the process. Yet even if Iran took the deal, it would only buy time; it would not solve the nuclear standoff. If 2,600 pounds of enriched uranium leaves the country, as the plan calls for, it would take Tehran roughly a year to replace it. That is not much time, but since American intelligence estimates say that Iran could produce a weapon between 2010 and 2015, even a year's delay helps. The Iranians say time is on their side in this dispute, and as long as their government holds together in the face of rising protests, they may be right.