Diplomatic chicken

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(HOST) Iran’s refusal to comply with a United Nations demand that it suspend its uranium enrichment activities, brings it ever closer to a collision in its game of “diplomatic chicken” with the world. This morning commentator Barrie Dunsmore assesses where we are on that road.

(DUNSMORE) First, let me say that while the “diplomatic chicken” metaphor is being used to describe the current diplomatic maneuverings now underway concerning Iran’s nuclear program, that in no way implies that this is not a deadly serious issue. The “collision” that could result if diplomacy fails, could well be an American military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such an attack would almost certainly set off still another war – that in addition to more death and destruction would cause huge spikes in oil prices and a new eruption of global terrorism.

That doesn’t have to be, but certainly the stakes in this game are very high.

Iran claims it is not trying to build a nuclear weapon and is simply trying to develop a nuclear energy program. That claim would be more credible if Iran had not kept the nature of its nuclear activities secret for eighteen years – or even now – if it would open its doors to complete international inspections. This it refuses to do.

So I believe the world has to assume Iran is trying to become a nuclear power. Intelligence estimates are that it will take from five to ten years for that to happen. That is not a long time – but it does provide the diplomats with some breathing room.

The U.S. now wants to move immediately in the U.N. to impose economic and financial sanctions against Iran. If Russia and China refuse to play ball, which seems likely, the back up plan is to get the European Union and perhaps Japan to impose such sanctions.

For its part, Europe wants to wait until it has further explored Tehran’s latest response to a package of incentives offered in June – by Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the U.S.. These incentives were designed to encourage Iran to give up its attempt to join the nuclear club. However at U.S. insistence, that package was made conditional on Iran freezing its nuclear program. Iran has publicly refused to do that – though there may be some flexibility in its position. Given the stakes, America too ought to be flexible and at least be willing to talk to the Iranians. But I worry that hard liners in the Bush administration such as Vice President Cheney, will again lose patience in the diplomatic process; that they will over-inflate the Iranian threat and then push for a military solution – just as they did with Iraq.

No one wants to see Iran become a nuclear power. Its president’s threat to wipe Israel off the map is reason enough to fear that. But even if diplomacy should not succeed – the final fall back position of both the U.S. and the Israelis themselves – is still a potent one. If Iran uses its nukes – it would face nuclear annihilation. Such a threat worked for more than forty years with the dictators in the Kremlin, and it can still work with the clerics of Iran.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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