Iran's Nuclear 'Good-Cop, Bad-Cop' Routine

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a parliamentary session in Tehran on Jan. 24 i

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a parliamentary session in Tehran on Jan. 24. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a parliamentary session in Tehran on Jan. 24

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a parliamentary session in Tehran on Jan. 24.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's announcement Monday that it intends to enrich uranium at higher levels — moving it closer to being able to produce a nuclear warhead — seems to contradict a message Tehran sent just last week offering to abide by an international plan to ship its uranium abroad for processing.

Analysts say Iran's leadership seems to be sending mixed signals in a possible diplomatic ploy.

"We may be spectators at a 'good-cop, bad-cop' routine that's designed to confuse us," says Rob Malley, director of Middle East programs for the International Crisis Group.

Craig Eisendrath, chairman of the Project for Nuclear Awareness, suggests it is part of Iran's continuing strategy to keep a wedge between the U.S. and its allies on one hand, and Russia and China on the other over the issue of how to respond to Iran's nuclear pursuits. The United States and others support tougher sanctions against Iran, while Russia and China have resisted.

On Monday, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that it will begin enriching uranium to 20 percent — beyond the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants, the justification Tehran has traditionally given for its enrichment program. Iran says the higher level is needed for medical purposes.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the international community had failed to respond to Iranian proposals for a swap that would have allowed Iran to obtain the enriched uranium it says it needs.

Ahmadinejad: Door Still Open

Even while he called for a big jump in the country's nuclear enrichment, Ahmadinejad insisted that "the door was still open" to a nuclear deal.

But after Iran's announcement, the United States and France on Monday called for tougher U.N. sanctions.

"No U.S. president has reached out more sincerely, and frankly taken more political risk, in an effort to try to create an opening for engagement for Iran," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. "All these initiatives have been rejected."

Just days before, Ahmadinejad and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had said that conditions were positive for the fuel swap, in which Iran was to have sent low-enriched uranium to France and Russia for further processing.

That plan would have — at least temporarily — relieved the fears of the U.S. and other nations that Iran is really seeking the capability to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb.

It's not the first time that Iranian officials have expressed seemingly confusing and even contradictory statements about their willingness to cooperate on nuclear issues.

Malley says Iran's shifting policy statements may reflect internal divisions in Iran. He also cautions that foreign observers shouldn't overestimate the extent of their knowledge about what's really going on in Iran.

The government may be trying to rally its conservative base, he says, especially in the face of what could be another surge of opposition protests centered around the 31st anniversary on Thursday of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Can Sanctions Have An Effect?

Eisendrath says the problem for the international community is to figure out how to design sanctions that will afflict Iran's leadership without alienating the people. The current domestic turmoil in Iran, he says, "is very much in our interest, but we need to be very careful about imposing sanctions that will turn the Iranian people against us."

Middle East expert Flynt Leverett, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, says Iranian officials see themselves as having three options for obtaining the enriched nuclear fuel they say they need.

The first option is to do what Ahmadinejad has ordered: for Iran to enrich the fuel itself. The second would be to buy the enriched fuel from other countries, something that Iran proposed doing before the idea of a fuel swap was raised.

The third option would be to agree to the fuel swap, in which Iran's low-enriched fuel would be shipped to Russia and France, where it would be enriched to 20 percent and returned to Iran in a form that could be used for medical purposes, but would be very difficult to weaponize.

The trouble with that proposal is that the U.S. and its allies want Iran to ship most of its nuclear fuel out of the country in one batch. That would ensure that Iran wouldn't have the necessary materials on hand if it decided it wanted to secretly process fuel for military purposes.

Iran has proposed to swap the fuel out in several batches, a plan that would keep at least some of the fuel in the country throughout the transaction.

Leverett notes that the U.S. and its allies will see Iran's decision to enrich its own fuel as a provocative act. But he says that the Iranian government is still open to negotiating on the other options.

Malley isn't convinced that Russia and especially China will go along with any move toward increased sanctions. He notes that China's long-term energy needs are of far greater concern to it than the threat that Iran will be able to build a nuclear bomb.

Malley also says the Obama administration needs to look beyond the nuclear dispute to engage with Iran in other ways.

"We could be talking with them about Afghanistan, about Iraq, about the drug issue," he says. "We need to broaden the agenda and not tie ourselves into this single-minded pursuit of a nuclear deal or sanctions."

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