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As U.N. Debates, Iran's Nuke Program Moves Ahead

By Ian Bremmer

Every time Mahmoud Ahmadinejad steps in front of a microphone, he gives the five permanent members of the Security Council new cause for exasperation.

The United States, Britain and France hope his April 11 announcement that Iran has produced enriched uranium from a 164-centrifuge cascade will persuade Russia and China to accept sanctions against Tehran. But ironically, as Iran's nuclear progress and Ahmadinejad's invective make that task easier, the chances of ultimately thwarting the country's nuclear ambitions become more remote. As the Security Council hashes out the details of sanctions, Iran is digging tunnels.

Representatives of the "permanent five" plus Germany met in Moscow on April 18 to discuss the imposition of limited sanctions -- such as a travel ban on Iran's leadership and the freezing of the country's international assets. Iran's nuclear progress and Ahmadinejad's rhetorical defiance have given the talks a renewed sense of urgency. But the hope that new international unity can finally force Iran to renounce its nuclear program is misplaced.

First, the real unity is on the Iranian side. There is no evidence of disagreement between Ahmadinejad and the country's real powerbroker, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If the supreme leader worried that his president's actions had damaged Iran's interests, he would have reined in Ahmadinejad weeks ago. And while it was the president's formal announcement that received saturation media coverage, it was actually his political rival, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who first publicly confirmed that Iran had crossed its latest nuclear threshold. That's important, because it signals that even Ahmadinejad's sometime domestic critics -- including the man he defeated to become president -- fully support an aggressive strategy to press ahead with nuclear development. This internal unity helps Iran resist international pressure.

Second, whatever some in the Bush administration say, Ahmadinejad is not crazy, and his government is not pursuing a reckless strategy. He was certainly playing for the cameras when he told his international critics to "be angry at us and die of this anger" following the enrichment announcement.

Such comments encourage some in Washington to argue that Ahmadinejad is not a "rational human being," as Bush adviser Karl Rove told an audience in Houston. But a likelier source of Ahmadinejad's public belligerence is that he knows his hard-line defense of the country's nuclear progress strengthens the ruling regime's popularity at home -- and that his country's international position is getting stronger by the day.

Finally, while Iran's nuclear progress has provoked some of the strongest condemnations yet from Russia and China, and both might now support the more limited sanctions they have to this point opposed, Tehran is confident they will never support tougher measures against Iran's oil exports, and that it will take several months for the U.N. process to play itself out. In the meantime, Iran now has more time to reinforce its nuclear sites against any eventual military strike.

Time is of the essence. On April 14, the Institute for Science and International Security, a U.S.-based think tank, issued a report complete with new satellite imagery that suggests Iran has been digging new tunnels near its uranium conversion facility at Isfahan and its underground enrichment site at Natanz. Clearly, Iran intends to use the extra time the permanent five will spend haggling over the details of sanctions to bury more of its key facilities in concrete deep underground. By the time talk of tough sanctions reaches the expected dead-end, Iran's nuclear assets may be beyond the reach of U.S. air strikes.

In sum, the Iranian government says travel bans and asset freezes are a small price to pay for its nuclear development. Its leadership does not believe the Security Council will ever impose harsh enough sanctions to threaten Iran's stability or that the United States can rally a durable coalition of states willing to impose the tough penalties the Security Council will not approve. Now that international support for coercive diplomacy is gaining new traction, Iran has more time to prepare its nuclear sites to withstand a U.S. attack.

Unlike the United States, Iran has powerful cards to play in the meantime. It can withdraw some of its oil output from global markets, adding significant upward pressure on prices already hovering around $70 per barrel. It can cut all oil exports to one or two energy-dependent U.S. allies -- like Japan. It can stage another military exercise near the Strait of Hormuz to remind the world that it could conceivably halt all shipping into and out of the Persian Gulf. Iran can add to the chaos in neighboring Iraq by re-supplying its Shiite allies among the country's increasingly active militia groups. It can support proxy attacks on Israel via Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Tehran announced on April 16 that thousands of suicide bombers are ready to strike U.S. and British targets in response to any military attack.

For Iran, all these potential actions would come at a price. But its government seems ready and willing to endure short-term pain to achieve its most important national goal. Iran certainly appears to be making progress toward joining the nuclear club. What's less clear is what the Bush administration can still do about it.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His new book, "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall," is out from Simon & Schuster. He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup.net.

(C) 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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