‘Mid-2010 might be too late for Obama to switch gears on Iran. Its nuclear clock is ticking faster and faster’

When Barack Obama takes office on 20 January, one of his first priorities will be to deal with the Iranian nuclear dossier. Signals coming from his transition team indicate that Obama will pursue a policy of “engagement without illusions”.

His likely approach is flawless and compelling. The US has tried everything with Iran – except engagement. Its European allies keep whispering that what Iran really wants is direct talks with Washington. Without America, diplomatic offers are never attractive enough. But the dialogue that Obama will pursue with Tehran will not be for its own sake. Presumably, the new Administration will expect results within a reasonable timeframe. If these do not materialise by, say, mid-2010, it will conclude – this is the “without illusions” part – that Iran is not interested in renouncing its nuclear ambitions.

Once that happens, Obama will switch gears, and call upon America’s allies to rally around a much tougher policy that might entail more sanctions or even the possibility of military action. To signal to Tehran that the US will not be fooled by Iran’s foot dragging, Obama will probably adopt a number of robust measures. He may order the Pentagon to deploy more naval forces in the Gulf, to place missiles in the Gulf states to protect them and to engage in military exercises in and around the Straits of Hormuz. Obama might issue statements carefully crafted to deter Iranian bad behaviour vis-à-vis America’s regional allies. At the same time, Obama will seek to reassure America’s friends that a “grand bargain” with Tehran will not be done behind their backs and might suggest an advance agreement on the kind of sanctions Europe and the US might impose.

By pursuing this approach, the Administration would find itself in a win-win situation: if engagement succeeds, Obama could turn the page in US-Iran relations and herald a new Middle Eastern order. It would be a genuine triumph of diplomacy and a great early success for the new presidency. If engagement fails, Obama could argue that he had tried in earnest and failed to budge Tehran. The time would have come for tougher measures to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a US-led effort would encounter much less resistance after diplomacy had been tried. The model would be Iraq – not 2003, but 1991.

The theory makes perfect sense, except for one small detail: the time factor. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, recently gave a clear warning to the new president – negotiate with Iran at your own peril. Kouchner delicately demolished the notion that dialogue had not been tried – the Europeans, after all, had engaged Tehran for more than six years and had received nothing in return. All that diplomacy achieved was for Iran to push back European red lines while making no real concessions. What guarantees will Obama receive that US engagement will not fall into the same trap of a long-drawn-out diplomatic dance, while Iran gains time to acquire nuclear weapons? The answer is that dialogue will occur under a self-imposed deadline, after which the chips are down.

But mid-2010 might already be too late for Obama to switch gears. Unlike the negotiating clock, which is always ticking and ticking slowly, Iran’s nuclear clock is ticking very fast, and is getting faster every day. Less than two weeks after Obama was elected, a new International Atomic Energy Agency report offered conclusive evidence that Iran has accumulated enough low enriched uranium that, if reprocessed, could yield enough high enriched uranium for one rudimentary nuclear bomb. There is no way of telling if Iran can reprocess and enrich to that level. According to the same report, Iranian centrifuges are enriching only 4.9 per cent, whereas they would have to enrich up to 80 or 90 per cent to produce weapons-grade uranium. But Iran is installing new-generation centrifuges and its installations are improving their performance all the time. Experts at the Wisconsin Project for Arms Control suggest that Iran could have enough fissile material for one bomb by Inauguration Day and another by Easter 2009.

There is much more than uranium to a bomb, but IAEA reports surmise that Iran has engaged in extensive studies and experiments with clear military applications – including making uranium metal hemispheres, testing high explosives and multiple detonators (all typical components of a nuclear weapon) and refitting a Shahab-3 missile warhead to fit what looks like a non-conventional weapon. Then, recently, Iran has tested a new missile, which appears to be a modified version of the Shahab-3 with a more accurate delivery. For all we know, the weapon might be ready – it only needs the fissile material to be deployed.

In short, there is little time to talk, even if US negotiators were instructed to do so “under no illusions” and with a clear timeline. Iran appears to be about to cross a critical nuclear threshold – one that would already be the “game changer” of which Obama spoke during his campaign. As French expert Bruno Tertrais recently said, hitherto no country that had reached such an advanced stage in its nuclear programme has decided to forgo nuclear weapons. Why would Iran be different? Dialogue has little time left to work. We hope President-elect Obama realises that.

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