Recently, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struck back at the international community by announcing that his country would start building ten industrial-scale enrichment facilities. Once those facilities are operating, the Islamic Republic will have an additional 550,000 centrifuges—and the capability of enriching enough uranium for about 160 bombs a year.
President Ahmadinejad’s announcement came just two days after the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, condemned Iran for trying to hide a small enrichment facility near Qom. The site, tucked inside a mountain, is suitable only for a weapons program. Significantly, both Moscow and Beijing, Tehran’s big-power sponsors, voted to rebuke the atomic ayatollahs. Soon after the vote, Iranian lawmakers and officials were claiming that the U.N. was pushing the country to build nuclear facilities and were calling for a reduction of cooperation with the global body. Some Iranians are even threatening to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the worldwide pact that prohibits Iran from weaponizing the atom.
The trumpeting of the plans to ramp up uranium enrichment is either the mullahs’ negotiating ploy or an indication they are going for broke and are unconcerned about defying the U.N. In either case, they look reckless as this is a particularly bad time for them to poke the eye of the international community.
Why? There is a growing consensus that the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons. Although they will always have the support of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and the world’s socialists, their intransigence is losing them just about everyone else.
For instance, Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA’s outgoing chief, last week signaled the end of his seemingly limitless tolerance for Iranian antics by declaring his organization’s investigation at “a dead end” due to the lack of Tehran’s cooperation. He even criticized the Iranian government for not accepting the plan to ship its uranium to Russia for further processing, an extraordinarily favorable deal for the mullahs as the proposed arrangement implicitly accepted their U.N.-condemned program. Moreover, the French, formerly indulgent of Iran, are now calling for sweeping sanctions, as Defense Minister Herve Morin made clear ten days ago.
Sanctions, if they were tight enough, could topple the Iranian regime. Yet Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Iranian leadership do not appear to be especially concerned: “Iran’s nuclear policy has always been about walking the tightrope at the edge of a cliff,” says Mashallah Shamsolva’ezin, an Iranian journalist. “But our leaders will never take actions that would jeopardize Iran’s national security.” If Tehran feels it can act defiantly—as it apparently does—it must mean that the leadership knows that it retains the backing of the Russians, the Chinese, or both of them. Moscow and Beijing, if they abandoned the regime, could end the theocracy in a matter of months, if not weeks, by cutting off commercial, military, and diplomatic ties and enforcing strict isolation.
Russia may be backing away from its hardline stance against effective sanctions, and in recent weeks it has showed some promising signs by delaying the shipment to Iran of advanced S-300 air-defense missiles and preventing its engineers from starting up the Bushehr nuclear plant. But if Moscow ultimately sides with the West on Iran—a big “if,” unfortunately—China will be the mullahs’ only big-power sponsor. They may need only one. In the middle of October, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, then visiting Beijing, that China would strengthen its economic and other ties with Iran, thereby undermining the effectiveness of U.N. sanctions.
The French, at this moment, talk about giving Iran a “last chance.” It is indeed the last chance, but not just for Tehran. It is the last chance for Moscow and Beijing to prove themselves to be members in good standing of the international community.