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The right way to keep tabs on Iran's nuclear program

A plan that Tehran first floated in 2005 could satisfy all sides.

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How do you say "sorry" in Farsi? That's the question the White House may need to answer in the wake of this week's stunning reversal of official US opinion about Iran's nuclear ambitions. But now that US intelligence believes Iran halted its nuclear arms effort in 2003, Bush administration hawks must do more than wipe the egg off their faces. They must still find a way to resolve the remaining impasse over uranium enrichment.

The bad news? The current course of ratcheted-up sanctions won't work. The good news? There is a practical plan available that all sides could find acceptable.

The surprising source for this plan is Iran. In 2005 and 2006, Tehran called for "international partnerships" and "joint ownership" of fuel-cycle facilities that would allow complete transparency through co-management of enrichment plants. Reluctant to legitimize Tehran's enrichment foothold, the US ignored the overture. But, unable to get support from China and Russia for more economic penalties, Washington today doesn't have any practical alternative.

Danger persists

Such a plan is critical, because danger persists, despite the headlines from the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. This year's NIE does indeed reverse the NIE's 2005 finding "that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons." The new conclusion: Iran's "halt" of its dedicated nuclear weapons program began in fall 2003. The report gives a subtle boost to the Bush administration: Tehran "was halted primarily in response to [undefined] international pressure." Since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) struggled with Iran in 2003 to come clean about its nuclear activities, Washington's invasion of Iraq arguably scared the Mullahs into stopping their weapons work, much as the Iraq war also frightened Libya to give up its bomb making program.

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