On Sept. 25, 2009, a grim-faced President Obama stood before the phalanx of journalists covering the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh to share a sensational piece of intelligence. Flanked by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the then British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, Obama disclosed that Iran had been operating a clandestine uranium enrichment plant near the town of Fordow, in the country's north.
The discovery of the Fordow facility—buried 300 feet beneath the region's mountainous terrain, under the control of the regime's much-feared Revolutionary Guard—did not sway Iran from the official line that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Accordingly, Obama delivered a warning to Tehran. If Iran's leaders continued to ignore the growing series of UN Security Council resolutions demanding the reigning in of their nuclear ambitions, they would be held "accountable."
At the time, there was little expectation that Obama's verbal salvo would trigger a change in Iran's behavior. Now, more than two years after the Fordow plant was unmasked, the notion that the Tehran regime will voluntarily comply with the Security Council seems almost laughable.
The earnest efforts of the European powers to engage in diplomacy have crumbled. Obama's entreaties to Tehran in the first months of his Presidency are an embarrassing memory. As for the international sanctions imposed upon Iran, even if one grants that it is premature to write them off completely, they have hardly been an unqualified success.
The current stalemate over Iran invites comparisons with Iraq in the months leading up to the 2003 war. The combination of sanctions and diplomacy failed there too, pushing the military option to the forefront. Even so, Saddam Hussein calculated that the U.S. and its allies would not launch a war against his brutal regime.
Iran's rulers are in danger of repeating that fatal error. Just like Saddam, the mullahs are confident that international divisions over what to do next will insulate their regime from military action.
Yet there is a critical difference between the two situations. In Iraq, the western allies were bitterly divided, with France leading the charge against American and British assertions that Saddam was developing chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. In the case of Iran, there is no such skepticism: indeed, some of the most strident reminders to Tehran that the military option remains on the table have come from the French.
More significantly, the most damning evidence that Iran is weaponizing its nuclear program has been gathered by a UN body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Its latest report, issued this month, stresses that many of Iran's nuclear activities are specific to weapons construction, and have no civilian application.
In the nine years that have elapsed since Iran's nuclear program was first exposed, the IAEA has never sounded this direct. The agency's previous Director-General, the Egyptian lawyer Mohamed ElBaradei, went to extraordinary lengths to protect Iran from international criticism, frequently whining about the "double standard" that allowed Israel to possess the nuclear weapons denied to Iran.
However, ElBaradei's successor, the Japanese career diplomat Yukiya Amano—who assumed the post around the same time that the Fordow plant was uncovered—has adopted a radically different stance. In a recent interview with Reuters, an observer familiar with the IAEA's inner workings spotlighted ElBaradei's political agenda as the chief contrast between the two men. "Because of his Iraq experience, ElBaradei was very, very worried that the IAEA reports would be used to justify military action," the analyst said. "Amano hasn't had that experience and therefore his priority is not to find every possible way to get Iran to cooperate."
David Albright, one of the most respected American experts on nuclear proliferation, went even further. The revelations in the IAEA's November report could have been published much earlier, Albright said, "but there was a head of the organization that had a different view about it."
Meanwhile, those very same states that encouraged ElBaradei's strategy of deflecting attention from Iran onto the U.S. and Israel—Russia, China, and a host of non-aligned countries—are now complaining that the IAEA under Amano is compromising its neutral status. In the days leading up to the release of the IAEA report, both the Chinese and the Russians leaned on Amano not to publish the evidence of the Iranian nuclear program's military dimensions. In resisting these pressures, Amano displayed a commendable backbone that will doubtless be tested again and again in the coming months.
The ultimate test, though, is reserved for the United States and its allies. For Russia and China, the standoff with Iran is an opportunity to determine whether American power is declining as sharply as both countries hope.
In that sense, America faces a choice: to continue battling Russian and Chinese opposition to further sanctions on Iran, or to recognize that since sanctions are unlikely to work, examination of military options is the next logical move.
Nightmare scenarios abound on either side of this dilemma. If the mullahs attain nuclear weapons in spite of tougher sanctions, Iran will have inflicted a massive strategic defeat upon the United States and its allies before it even presses the red button. If a pre-emptive bombing campaign fails to conclusively destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, the U.S. risks triggering an Iranian response aimed, in the first instance, at Saudi Arabia and the other petrodollar monarchies in the Gulf.
Throughout the Iranian nuclear saga, military action has been a dim and distant prospect, something western leaders have kept on the table with little appetite to see it through. The IAEA report, which should extinguish any doubts about Iran's true intentions, may bring military intervention that much closer.
As Obama tries yet again to bring China and Russia back into the fold, in meetings at the APEC Summit in Hawaii, he should make it clear that ElBaradei is gone, and that Iran is not Iraq Redux: this time, those who challenge the legitimacy of a military response will have little scope to challenge the evidence underwriting it.