The war of words with Iran

By Mark Follman
Published February 5, 2005 1:09AM (EST)

Traveling through Europe on her way to the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday that a military attack against Iran to put a halt to its burgeoning nuclear program is "not on the agenda at this point." There are "diplomatic means," Rice said, to resolving the problem.

But tough talk is also flaring up again on all sides of the issue -- including from Rice. "I don't think anybody thinks that the unelected mullahs who run that regime are a good thing for the Iranian people or for the region," she told reporters aboard her plane to London. "I think our European allies agree that the Iranian regime's human rights behavior and its behavior toward its own population is something to be loathed."

Rice's harsh comments -- and President Bush's clear signal during his State of the union address to the "Iranian people" who would stand against the mullahs -- come as tension between Tehran and the West seems more palpable once again.

The dance is nothing new, but recent intelligence reports may augur a moment of reckoning to come sooner than later. According to a report in today's New York Times, three European countries have uncovered evidence that Iran is doing maintenance work on centrifuge piping at an enrichment plant at Natanz in southern Iran. The issue is regarded as serious enough that John Sawers, the senior British Foreign Office official involved in the negotiations, protested in meetings in Tehran on Wednesday with Iran's senior nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi.

The United States also issued a formal complaint with European negotiators, via a Jan. 28 letter from John Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security. "We are taking this issue extremely seriously," a British official told the Times. "We are reminding Iran of its obligations."

But a key problem is that the Iranians can continue to mask the nature of their nuclear program behind the inadequate technical parameters of the nuclear nonproliferation accord to which they are party.

Also notable in the Times report is that even some less hawkish policy thinkers are troubled by the Iranians' current behavior. "It's a bad sign that the first time Iran is supposed to do what it agreed to that it looks as if it is trying to get away with something," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonpartisan arms control group in Washington. "This is something that makes everyone nervous."

And the mullahs are taking a defiant stance once again. As the Europeans take Rice's cue and continue to emphasize talks with Tehran, the Brits in particular might be interested to know that they're getting little credit for any diplomatic heroics.

"We do not have much hope for these negotiations," Ayatollah Ahmad Janati told worshippers at Friday Prayers in Tehran in a sermon broadcast live on state television, according to Reuters. "But the negotiating delegation, the other side and everybody should know that the (nuclear) fuel cycle is our red line ... If anyone wants to stand against it, our people will stand against them."

Janati, who heads Iran's Guardian Council, talked of a conspiracy by the British members of the nuclear talks to make Iran give up its nuclear technology gradually and for little reward. "They are masters of deception, cunning and trickery," he said, calling Britain "the father of the Great Satan" -- the nickname for the United States used by Iran's hardliners. "If they can," Janati said, "they will just give us a candy as sweetener."

The last few days, meanwhile, the Israelis have stayed pretty quiet.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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