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Iran exploits diplomacy to advance its nuclear program

The headlines from last month’s Iranian nuclear talks in Istanbul could not have been more misleading: “Iran is ready to resolve nuclear issues.” The accumulation of historical fact in this long crisis proves just the opposite: The Iranian regime is bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon, and will take full advantage of diplomacy toward this end if allowed to do so, including this week’s talks in Baghdad.

Indeed, the Iranian strategy of exploiting diplomacy to further advance the nuclear program is a matter of regime policy. It has resurfaced over and over throughout the crisis, whether during the critical formative years of 2003-2005, the meetings in Geneva in October 2009 and November 2010, the meetings in Istanbul in 2011, and the current negotiations.

Iran's strategy is expressly goal-oriented. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has emphasized a belief among "influential" Iranians that the "status quo can be changed to install Iran as the region's hegemonic power."

It should be recalled that Iran, certain of its goal from the outset, had every intention of completing its military nuclear program under the cloak of secrecy. After close to two decades of clandestine activity, this plan went awry when an Iranian opposition group exposed Tehran's illicit nuclear activity in Natanz and Arak in August 2002.

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The main question that negotiators asked themselves at the start of the crisis is still being asked: Can diplomacy alone persuade Iran that the benefits of compliance with international demands outweigh those of defiance?

With this question in mind, in both October 2003 and November 2004 the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom hammered out agreements they hoped would resolve the crisis. But Tehran reneged both times on its commitment to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That the Iranians had exploited the agreements to move their nuclear program forward could have been guessed; later on they publicly admitted it.

Hassan Rohani exposed Tehran's strategy in late 2004 while still secretary of Iran's National Security Council and head of its nuclear portfolio. In a speech to the Iranian parliament, Rohani — Fischer's negotiating counterpart — admitted that Iran took advantage of these agreements to advance the uranium enrichment process, assemble centrifuges, and manufacture their parts.

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Back then few believed Iran was bent on developing a nuclear weapon. Today few doubt it still is — a consensus firmly supported by the findings of the IAEA, the world's recognized authority on the matter.

As if to reinforce the point himself, Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei's own website recently included a link to an article justifying the possession of nuclear weapons. The article on fardanews.com said: "If nuclear weapons are a means for saber rattling and bullying, obtaining these arms against those who possess it — and their hostility is proven — is necessary. It is not necessary that we use these arms, but they are necessary because of their deterrent quality and creation of fear."

Determined to rattle sabers, bully, and create fear, the Iranian regime has promised post-Istanbul that a deal can be done "very quickly and simply" — on its own terms, no doubt. Such is Tehran's track record throughout the nuclear crisis.

Benefiting from historical hindsight, those who prepare to sit across the table from their Iranian counterparts again this week in Baghdad know that the regime's primary motive is to use diplomacy to gain time, lift sanctions, gain legitimacy for its nuclear weapons program and to advance it further. Tehran's representatives come to Baghdad not to resolve the nuclear crisis, but rather to ensure its continuation.

This knowledge is the international community's strength, why it still has the ability to stop the Iranian military nuclear program through diplomatic and other means — despite Tehran's determination to acquire the bomb. Israel would still like to see diplomacy succeed — but cannot ignore that time is critical and Iran's centrifuges are still spinning.

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Yehuda Yaakov is a career Israeli diplomat specializing in nuclear non-proliferation.