The New York Times reports a potentially significant development in Iran's nuclear program:
Iran told atomic inspectors this week that it had run into a serious problem at a newly completed nuclear reactor that was supposed to start feeding electricity into the national grid this month, raising questions about whether the trouble was sabotage, a startup problem, or possibly the beginning of the project’s end.
In a report on Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran told inspectors on Wednesday that it was planning to unload nuclear fuel from its Bushehr reactor — the sign of a major upset. For years, Tehran has hailed the reactor as a showcase of its peaceful nuclear intentions and its imminent startup as a sign of quickening progress.
But nuclear experts said the giant reactor, Iran’s first nuclear power plant, now threatens to become a major embarrassment, as engineers remove 163 fuel rods from its core.
I argued earlier:
Since the two countries share no diplomatic relations, the U.S. does not have to walk the same tightrope [with Iran as it does when] its Arab allies (such as Egypt or Bahrain) face down pro-democracy protests. And unlike 2009, when it was uncertain whether or not Obama's policy of engaging Iran would pay off in nuclear talks, today it is the Islamic Republic that is eager to bargain at the negotiating table. A fourth round of economic sanctions are biting at Iran's stagnant economy, and the regime's much-prized nuclear program is in apparent disarray, having been fed damaging sedimented uranium, poorly engineered from the get-go, and sabotaged by the Stuxnet virus. President Obama was also keen to not want to taint the Green movement earlier on, comparing the United States to a "handy political football" for the regime at the time. But despite the White House's initial hands-off approach to post-election protests, the regime labeled opposition figures as 'seditionists' and agents of the West anyway.If Iran's nuclear program proves to be in shambles, it would no longer pose an immediate threat to the West. Consequently, the Obama administration would have even less to risk by speaking out more forcefully against the Iranian regime, and is thus faced with a dilemma: should U.S. policy towards the country continue at the status quo ante? With a contagion of popular uprising spreading throughout the region, the Islamic Republic is suddenly looking very vulnerable. Its opposition – at this point essentially demanding regime change – has been watching events unfold, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and now in Libya. And as tragic and bloody as Gaddafi's maniacal fall from power is turning out to be, the Libyan people are on their way to achieving what the Iranians couldn't a year and a half ago. Yet the entire population of Libya is only twice the number of people who took to the streets of Tehran in June of 2009. For the regime, that is a very frightening thought. The United States should view it in the opposite light.
There have been hints of a shift coming from the State Department, and both Secretary Clinton and President Obama's recent comments on Iranian authorities' crackdown of last week's protests were noticeably sharper than ever before. Still, with the current upheaval sweeping the region, one wonders if the administration should do more. Abbss Milani writes for the New Republic:
President Obama should no longer be worried that full-throated rhetorical and political support for the protesters could redound against the United States. And now that the international community is united around sanctioning Iran for its nuclear activities, there is less need for Obama to assure Khamenei that he does not want regime change. Along with other members of the international community—particularly Turkey—the United States should further isolate the regime, thus serving notice to them that continued brutality against the people will beget it a fate similar to South Africa. (Turkey, too, must be reminded that it cannot be the leader of a democratic Middle East while embracing the region’s most brutal regime.)
It is by no means clear that the government in Tehran will crumble next week, next month, or even in the next decade—yet the same thing could have been said about Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, ten years, a month, or even a week ago. Moreover, the benefits for the Middle East could be truly breathtaking: With Egypt on a perilous path to possible democracy, and with Turkey already a working democratic polity, the advent of democracy in Iran could easily tip the regional balance toward democracy, rule of law, and reason. By supporting the Green Movement along with other liberal movements throughout the Middle East, Obama can help to make it so.
If Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are any indication, the White House will likely act more hesitantly than boldly. Were Tehran to soon see massive protests like those that rocked the capital in 2009, however, that may soon change. With Gaddafi teetering at the brink, all eyes remained fixed on the region. Those in the West Wing are no exception.