A more united front against Iran

As Tehran resists efforts to clip its nuclear ambitions, tensions may mount before UN debate in March.

Iran and its nuclear program are poised to become Topic No. 1 of the United Nations Security Council - but that doesn't mean that resolution of the international debate swirling around them is imminent.

With Iran unlikely to back down under mounting international pressure - and perhaps prepared to take defiant measures, ratcheting up the crisis - tensions seem likely to grow before an expected Security Council meeting in March, rather than to subside.

"The United States seems to be saying they can get a package of sanctions to get Iran to back down, but ... I don't see that coming," says Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "I don't anticipate [Iran] refreezing [its nuclear] program."

For now, the international community appears more united than before in a desire to curtail Iran's nuclear advance, and Tehran seems more isolated than ever. In an emergency session that continued at press time Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency was expected to pass a resolution reporting Iran to the Security Council, and calling on the IAEA to report to the council on Iranian violations of nuclear research commitments, for deliberations in March.

The month-long delay is designed to give further diplomacy a chance - by allowing Moscow time to try to negotiate a deal with Iran to carry out enrichment of uranium in Russia for Iranian nuclear power plants.

Iran remains defiant

But Iran remained defiant even as the IAEA met, informing the agency in a letter that referral to the Security Council would force it to suspend all cooperation with the agency, including allowing inspectors on its nuclear sites.

An IAEA referral to the Security Council would be a public defeat for Iran - and for its efforts to depict the crisis as a schism between the world's powerful and powerless. Landing on the docket of the Security Council stains its reputation, even before any sanctions are approved. It also suggests growing unity by the international community against Iran.

Despite its confrontational rhetoric, Iran is not like North Korea, in that it cares deeply about its diplomatic and economic ties to the world, particularly to India, China, Eastern Europe, and other economies of the developing world.

For US, a time to avoid the spotlight

At the same time, the IAEA debate suggests trouble ahead for the Bush administration's tough diplomacy on Iran.

Several countries - including Venezuela, Syria, Belarus, and Cuba, all with their own diplomatic problems with the US - oppose Iran's referral to the Security Council. Though it takes only a simple majority of the IAEA's 35-member board to approve Iran's referral, clear opposition from the "nonaligned movement" countries would bolster Iran's stance.

That is one reason the US seems to have elected not to appear to be leading the charge against Iran, leaving that instead to the Europeans. The text under consideration at the IAEA is sponsored by France, Germany, and Britain. And on the global stage, the Europeans are talking more openly about eventual sanctions against Iran than is the US - at least for now.

In less glaring settings, though, the US continues to hammer at Iran's nuclear ambitions in forceful terms. US officials have latched on to reports that IAEA inspectors have found evidence of an Iranian project combining research into uranium enrichment, explosives, and missile development.

This week the State Department's arms control chief, Robert Joseph, told a Washington audience that the kind of research revealed in the IAEA documents could only be used for nuclear weapons. He said Iran's nuclear path poses a "threat" to the region and to as far away as Europe - including to US forces stationed there.

But even with IAEA referral, the US is "playing a particularly weak hand," says Lee Feinstein, a senior fellow in US foreign relations at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The US is buying time, but if the aim is to get Iran to give up [its program], the Security Council is not the place," he says. Such "big steps" - as when Libya renounced nuclear-weapons ambitions in 2003 - usually come from behind-closed-doors diplomacy.

And while the US is making its point on Iran in New York, he adds, an antagonized Iran can be fomenting major difficulties for the US if it chooses - in Iraq, for example.

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