After months of halfhearted, fruitless attempts at engagement, the United States and its European partners are effectively re-enacting George W. Bush's Iran policy. In 2006, after Iran had ended a nearly two-year voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment, then-U.S. president pushed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to send Iran's nuclear file to the U.N. Security Council, which duly imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic. But the sanctions did not prove "crippling," as Bush had hoped: Iran continued to expand its nuclear infrastructure, and the risks of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran climbed.
Unfortunately, Barack Obama's administration has decided to repeat this sorry history. Last Friday, the IAEA passed a resolution urging Iran to send most of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad. It also reported Iran once again to the Security Council. Iran has wasted no time in upping the ante rather than backing down, saying it would restrict cooperation with the IAEA only to those measures "statutorily" required. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also announced that the Islamic Republic would build 10 new enrichment facilities in coming years. He later added, "Iran will produce fuel enriched to a level of 20 percent," the level required for Iran's research reactor in Tehran. This would be well above the 3 to 4 percent level that Iran has already achieved in producing low-enriched uranium and would take Iran closer to the 90 percent-plus level required for weapons-grade fissile material.
These developments again demonstrate the counterproductive futility of enshrining uranium enrichment and sanctions as the keys to resolving the nuclear issue. By prompting Tehran to reduce cooperation with the IAEA, the United States and its European partners have done real damage to the international community's ability to monitor the state of Iran's nuclear program. More broadly, U.S., British, and French insistence on "zero enrichment" in Iran makes successful nuclear diplomacy with Tehran impossible. At this point, there is no chance that Tehran will accept "zero enrichment" as a negotiated outcome, for at least two reasons: It is a country-specific formulation applied to Iran but not to anybody else, and it requires Iran to forswear its sovereign right to the full range of civil nuclear technology.
If the United States and its partners continue on their present course, the Islamic Republic will continue to expand its nuclear infrastructure, and the risks of an eventual military confrontation between the United States (or Israel, with U.S. support) and Iran will, once again, rise inexorably. There is no set of sanctions the Security Council might plausibly authorize that would change this reality, and various unilateral and secondary sanctions initiatives moving through the U.S. Congress will not work either.
A more constructive approach would seek to maximize international monitoring of Iran's nuclear activities by emphasizing country-neutral formulations for curbing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. This would require international acceptance of enrichment on Iranian soil. Getting Iran to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be an important step in this direction, but the most effective country-neutral initiative would be the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the region.