Friday’s announcement by President Barack Obama and his French and British counterparts about Iran’s covert nuclear activities had all the ingredients of a blockbuster – three heads of state, the international press corps, a dramatic revelation, and stark warnings about the consequences facing Tehran.
Indeed, the President’s disclosure that Iran has constructed a covert uranium enrichment facility represented a dramatic effort to increase the pressure on Iranian leaders on the eve of highly anticipated talks between the Islamic state and major world powers on the nuclear issue.
But where Iran is concerned, actions often have an equally thorny reaction. While the Presidential press briefing succeeded in gaining headlines, it is hardly certain that it will have the intended impact on next week’s talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva. Rather than unnervering Tehran and inducing a more cooperative approach to the nuclear negotiations, today’s blockbuster may only further entrench the regime’s recalcitrance – and leave Washington with no more viable alternatives for curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
At first glance, the timing of today’s announcement may seem like an ideal way to force Tehran’s hand. But in reality, the decision to go public today was prompted by the Iranians themselves, who provided a belated and incomplete disclosure earlier this week to the International Atomic Energy Agency after learning of its discovery. That was the first step in Tehran’s damage control efforts, but surely not the last. Expect the Iranians to parse any legal technicalities they can muster to justify their violation
By the time next week’s talks begin, whatever apprehension the Iranian leadership may have felt about the world’s discovery of their latest nuclear deception may well be replaced by a more familiar Iranian emotion – defiance. When backed into a corner, Tehran tends to lash out. Today’s splashy public announcement was an impressive American power play, but subtler, more Machiavellian tactics of communicating our capacity to uncover all of Iran’s tricks might have gone further toward influencing Iran’s current hard-line leadership.
The Obama Administration should gain some boost for its public diplomacy efforts to persuade skeptical governments and the international community more broadly of the dangerous nature of Iran’s nuclear program. But here too, there is probably less than meets the eye; at this late date in the debate, the Iranian regime has relatively few defenders, and anyone who still needing convincing that Iran’s massive, frantic nuclear investments involved something more worrisome than civilian power generation probably will find a way to disregard this latest evidence.
Beyond next week’s negotiations, the real question about today’s announcement is its impact on decision-makers in Moscow and Beijing, whose posture will make or break any efforts to impose rigorous sanctions on Iran. Here too, it would be a mistake to leap to optimistic conclusions. Washington reportedly has known of the facility’s existence for years, and if this information was shared with the other members of the P5+1, then its existence has not yet persuaded their capitals to support serious sanctions. More to the point, the difficulty with assembling international support for robust economic measures against Iran has never involved doubt over Iran’s intentions or differences over the desirability of preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Rather, the long track record of Russia and China on this issue has made it clear that neither capital will fully jettison its strategically and economically valuable relationship with Tehran in order to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Despite the hoopla in Pittsburgh, it seems overly sanguine to presume that today’s announcement will transform that calculus.