Tango with Tehran

By Haggai Carmon

Time has come for the world to recognize that a nuclear-armed Iran could bring the economy to their knees by hiking the price of Middle East oil, and that what is needed is more than rhetoric and mild sanctions against Iran.

“Let’s tango with the Americans,” said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to his aides.

“What style?” they asked. “Open-embrace tango, with space between the dancers, or close embrace, where you dance chest-to-chest?”

“Iranian-style,” said Ahmadinejad. “We lead, holding the Americans by the jugular, pulling them one step forward and pushing them two steps back.”

“What if they refuse to dance?” asked the aides.

“They won’t,” Ahmadinejad chuckled. “It’s been 31 years since our Islamic revolution, and the Americans still haven’t learned they’re dancing to our tune.”

An imaginary dialogue, of course, but a plausible one, considering how Iran toys with the world, thus far with impunity.

Is it a coincidence that suddenly last week, when the Iranians apparently realized that, this time, the superpowers and other UN Security Council members were serious about imposing sanctions, a Turkish-Iranian nuclear agreement was brokered, with the Brazilian president’s help? The terms of the deal are nearly identical to those that Iran first accepted, then rejected, last year. A tango.

The deal has Iran exchanging Iranian-enriched uranium, which when further enriched could be used in a nuclear bomb, for fuel rods. However, Iran agreed to exchange only half the quantity of enriched uranium it reportedly possesses. What’s to stop it, for example, from enriching the other half further for use in a bomb?

At the heart of this crisis is Tehran’s argument that it has a sovereign right to possess nuclear technology, combined with its refusal to play by the rules of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed in 1968, and which prohibits development of nuclear weapons. The issue isn’t Iran’s right to create electricity from nuclear power, rather the fact that an Iran with nuclear weapons would constitute a regional superpower. It would place Ahmadinejad’s hands on the oil spigots of the Gulf states, and perhaps those of Saudi Arabia as well.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, endangering the West’s oil supply, the U.S. and its allies attacked Iraq. But the world could not do the same with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Intelligence records show Iran started working toward nuclear weapons as early as 1990, long before Ahmadinejad became president. This came to light in 2002, with the public revelation of the existence of a nuclear facility at Natanz. International scrutiny followed. Iran’s then-president, reformist Mohammad Khatami, insisted that his country’s ambitions were solely for nuclear energy. He assured his countrymen that this would enhance Iran’s technological capabilities, thus elevating Tehran’s status in the region and worldwide, while bolstering national pride and demonstrating defiance to the bullying foreign powers.

When Ahmadinejad first assumed office, he wasted no time in declaring that nuclear research would proceed regardless of what the Europeans and the Americans did or said. He told parliament on August 6, 2005: “I don’t know why some countries cannot understand that the Iranian people will not succumb to force.” Ahmadinejad’s subsequent rhetoric shows that he, like his predecessor Khatami, continues to see the president as the one who will protect Iran from condescending foreigners trying to stop it from becoming nuclear.

Iran has the know-how, technology and materials to build a nuclear bomb. What it needs now is time: to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium to build at least one such bomb. Then, Iran believes, it – and not the UN, the U.S., or the rest of the world – will be able to dictate the terms of any agreement it is a party to. To gain that time, Tehran is dancing the tango.

Whenever the world’s patience seems to be at an end, the Iranians hint that they are amenable to a compromise. When negotiations behind closed doors commence, and weeks are wasted on futile talk, public attention is deflected and Iran’s willingness to settle evaporates. One step forward, two steps back. Tango, Iranian-style.

The proposed UN resolution for sanctions is important because it came immediately after the announcement of the Iranian-Turkish deal, indicating that the powers weren’t taken in by it. But even a UN-drawn line in the sand will not deter Iran. Cuba has been subjected to more severe sanctions since 1961, and yet maintained its defiance. Iran is unlikely to react differently.

The time has come for the countries of the world to recognize that a nuclear-armed Iran could bring their economies to their knees by hiking the price of Middle East oil astronomically, and that what is needed is more than rhetoric and mild sanctions against Iran. Now is the time to move, not just talk. As Eli Wallach said in the epic spaghetti Western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”: “When you have to shoot, shoot! Don’t talk.” If bold action is to be taken, it must be taken before Ahmadinejad appears on TV announcing that Iran has tested its first nuclear bomb in the Iranian desert. By then, the tango dance party will be over.

This op-ed was originally published in Ha’artez/International Herald Tribune on 05/28/2010

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