Iran: Is Diplomacy Dead?

One of the most severe sanctions packages in U.S. history was ready six weeks ago. But never before had Washington branded virtually the entire military of another country as criminal, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her top aides were waiting for the right moment, diplomatically, to drop it on Tehran. Rice's patience was wearing out fast. The Russians and Chinese were blocking a third resolution condemning Iran's nuclear-enrichment program in the U.N. Security Council. Beijing, in fact, had "increased its trade with Iran" in recent months, Under Secretary of State Nick Burns said testily. According to a senior administration official, the decisive moment came last week, when Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad forced the resignation of the country's more moderate nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. A bitter rival of Ahmadinejad's, Larijani was replaced by one of the president's close associates, the younger and more radical Saeed Jalili. "That was too much," said the U.S. official.

For some people, it all felt unnervingly like a lurch back to 2002—the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration's announcement of wide-ranging sanctions against Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Defense Ministry—as well as its major banks—tarred much of Tehran's officialdom as rogues, terror supporters or proliferators. Russian President Vladimir Putin, displaying his gift for anti-American metaphor, likened the Bush officials to "mad people wielding razor blades." Democratic lion Sen. Robert Byrd thundered: "Congress will not be kept out of the loop while this administration plots another march to war."

The administration says that it's trying to avoid a war, not charge into one. U.S. officials say they have grown fed up with the endless bickering inside the U.N. Security Council over Iran's nuclear program. "The diplomacy isn't sufficiently strong," Burns said last week. With the new sanctions, Washington is telling European and Asian banks and companies to shun Iran unless they want to be labeled rogues themselves—and perhaps lose the right to do business in the world's richest market, America. Some European allies applauded the action. "This is the type of measure that can awaken the regime and make them realize that ignoring [U.N.] resolutions and their own promises will make them a pariah," said one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his position.

Still, coming on top of weeks of hawkish anti-Iran rhetoric from Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top U.S. officials, some U.S. allies worry that, as another European diplomat said, "the U.S. administration is going ahead on its own." What had begun as a multilateral effort to stop Tehran from getting nuclear-bomb know-how has turned into a broadside out of Washington, said the diplomat, whose position also required him to speak anonymously. As justification, the administration blames Tehran for nearly every ill wind in the Mideast, criticizing not just the nuclear program but Iranian interference in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. In at least one case the administration seems to be overreaching: Defense officials tell NEWSWEEK that evidence of the Iranian government's shipping arms to the Taliban remains tentative at best.

Certainly many Iranians think the new sanctions are another indication that Bush is only interested in regime change. (The administration's $196 billion spending request for Iraq and Afghanistan, Democratic lawmakers noted last week, includes $88 million to upgrade B-2 bombers so they can carry extra-large "bunker-busters"—useful for attacking an underground nuclear site like Iran's.) Inside the White House, Bush's aides described their approach as "a turning of the screw"—a re-calibration designed to moderate Iran's stance. Still, their new approach does seem to cut off the possibility of high-level negotiations with the current Iranian government, at least for the present. Even a key U.S. ally, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, says the sanctions alienate U.S. officials from the only real decision makers in Iran. "The Revolutionary Guards … are the ones who are running the Iranian government," Zebari said last week.

While Bush administration officials insist that Tehran intends to build a bomb, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is concerned that Iran wants eventually to become a "virtual nuclear- weapons state," like Japan. That is, it wants to have the technology, industry and expertise to produce a bomb on short notice, but doesn't necessarily want to make or test one. ("Yes, that is what we are doing," a senior Iranian envoy, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told NEWSWEEK last week.) Many Iranians hint that this would be a sufficient strategic deterrent, unless the United States attacks first. But only real negotiations can clarify whether there remains any potential for compromise. As another Iranian diplomat told NEWSWEEK, "Nothing short of negotiations as equal partners, like what we have with Europe, will solve Iran's problems with the rest of the world." Such talks, however, are looking less likely than ever.