Among the surreal events becoming ever more frequent in the nuclear showdown with Iran was the appearance of an ad last week in the International Herald Tribune, inviting bids to build "Two Large Scale Nuclear Power Plants in Iran."
The ad ran in all editions of the paper, which is owned by the New York Times, and reaches more than 240,000 readers in more than 180 countries. Somehow this outrageous solicitation escaped the notice of major world media. That's remarkable, at a time when Iran has been flagrantly defying United Nations Security Council resolutions calling on Tehran to halt its nuclear bomb program - with both the U.N. and U.S. Treasury calling for a freeze on the assets worldwide of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, on behalf of which the ad was placed.
The ad did get noticed in Israel, a country that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he would like to see wiped off the map. Bloggers picked up the story, and a scanned version of the ad began circulating, with commentary, on the Internet. It smacked of Iranian nose-thumbing so extreme one had to wonder if it was a spoof.
It's no joke. The ad, which reads like something out of a Graham Greene novel, includes an e-mail address for a "Mr. Esmaeili," the address of Iran's Permanent Mission to the U.N. in Vienna, and a bank-account number at Austria Bank-Creditanstalt, complete with SWIFT code, for interested bidders to pay a nonrefundable fee for a set of bidding specifications. The ad further spells out that any ensuing bids are to be accompanied by a bid bond, all leading to the appointed day, Aug. 8, when the bids are to be opened at Atomic Energy Organization of Iran headquarters in Tehran.
The ad includes a telephone number in Austria. I phoned yesterday and reached a man, who in broken English, gave me the number of the Iranian ambassador's office at Iran's Permanent Mission to the U.N. in Vienna. A polite woman answered, and confirmed, in good English, that, yes, the ad was genuine.
What's going on? Is this an unsubtle attempt by Iran to leverage its bargaining power at the various summits in the carrot-and-stick "dialogue," which has failed for years to stop the march of the Iranian mullocracy toward the bomb? Is it connected to backroom brawls in Iranian politics? An attempt to slide around U.N. sanctions by using diplomatic missions to the U.N. itself as a corridor for nuclear deals?
There are thrillers here waiting to be written.
Whatever the full backroom story, this ad spectacularly embodies a message that is no fiction and no laughing matter. Iran's rulers are in no way taking seriously the diplomatic calls and hand-waving from the United States, the European Union, and the U.N. to desist in their nuclear bomb program.
Why should they? Iran, in its trek toward the bomb, has paid no serious price. It is becoming routine to see Tehran defy even the watered-down U.N. Security Council resolutions that its big business partners in Russia and China allow to slip through. Iran openly trains and supports terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, which has killed more Americans than any terrorist group except al-Qaeda, and launched an unprovoked war against Israel out of Lebanon last summer. Domestically, the Iranian regime, in violation of human decency and the terms of its U.N. membership, jails, tortures and murders dissidents who aspire to replace their nation's malignant theocracy with a free and open system.
Nuclear weapons would deliver to Iran the same power of blackmail that North Korea now wields so adroitly to extort aid and concessions from even the United States. Except in Iran's case, the mullahs would become the nuclear godfathers of the oil-rich Middle East.
In response to my queries about the ad, the International Herald Tribune e-mailed a statement that invites debate: "We believe that advertising should be as free and open as the dictates of honesty and decency allow."
But it would be a mistake to focus on that newspaper's ad policy as the core issue. The real outrage is a world climate in which an ad like this appears, complete with bank information and contacts at the Iran's Mission to the U.N. in Vienna, and apart from the Israeli press and some bloggers, nobody blinks. In the street cafes of Paris and New York, people open their newspapers and over their morning coffee browse past this astounding solicitation - one of the signposts along a road leading toward horrors that could dwarf Sept. 11.