Delays turn to stalemate over Iran's nuclear ambitions

But sense of urgency eases at the UN, as the US continues to work the diplomatic front with Tehran.

What was supposed to be a quick discussion in the United Nations Security Council to solidify international opposition to Iran's nuclear program has turned into a stalemate.

With both Russia and China balking at any council statement that might open the door to sanctions against Iran further down the road, agreement on a diplomatic rebuff could still be a week or more away. That is, if broadly acceptable wording for a statement can be found even then.

In the short term, the United States appears unfazed by the delay - after all, it tried for four years to slap Iran with the taint of a Security Council referral, so why fret now over an extended international focus on the Islamic republic?

Any serious action against Iran is still as much as a year away, many analysts say. Even before it's time for hardball, the US should expect diplomatic ups and downs, some temporary return of the Iranians to the negotiating table, and possibly direct contact with Iran.

"My guess is that something like 'smart sanctions,' that are essentially limited to making life less agreeable for the Iranian regime, would take three diplomatic cycles [at the UN] and are six months to a year out," says James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. "That means anything like [economic] sanctions or legitimized military action is pretty far away."

In the meantime, debate rages over how far Tehran may be from getting the bomb - something the regime continues to insist it has no designs on acquiring. "If it's true the Iranians want a nuclear capacity for energy, then why these long-range missiles they are developing?" says Patrick Lang, a Middle East specialist and former Defense Intelligence Agency officer.

Some experts believe the Iranians could be within a year of perfecting the nuclear fuel cycle, but still at least five years from possessing a deliverable weapon.

But the stymied debate also suggests the difficult position the US is in with this long, low-level confrontation. Virtually no one in Washington is advocating regime-changing military action against Tehran. The advocates of "engagement" to modify the regime's behavior are also on the outs.

President Bush says all options remain on the table, but with the extremes of military action and broad US-Iran negotiations ruled out for now, a calibrated carrot-and-stick approach to Iran may be the best option, some analysts say. In fact, the US may have already embarked on that strategy, they say, with the Bush administration stepping up rhetoric identifying Iran as America's biggest strategic threat, even as it agrees to talks with the Iranians on Iraq.

The Bush administration appears to be counting on diplomacy to work - including stepped-up Farsi- language broadcasts into the country and support for opposition groups inside Iran.

But the key to diplomatic efforts heading off a nuclear Iran is actually held by Washington, some experts say, though it appears unlikely the US is willing to use it.

"The US-Iran relationship would have to change dramatically," says Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Iran would want "a reduction of its strategic anxieties."

Among the conditions that Tehran would probably want for giving up its nuclear ambitions would be recognition of its regional role, particularly in the Persian Gulf; a security agreement; and economic relations with the US, Mr. Takeyh said at a recent Nixon Center discussion.

Negotiations weighing the prospects of such a grand bargain sound like the six-party talks the US, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea have carried on with North Korea over its nuclear program, and indeed some analysts say that is what's needed. One suggestion is that the Security Council's permanent members and Germany open such talks with Iran.

In that context, the proposed US-Iran talks on Iraq could become a testing ground for whether broader negotiations might work, according to some experts. "If the Iranians were helpful [with Iraq], one would hope that would create greater trust that could spill over into the nuclear issue," says RAND's Mr. Dobbins.

Right now the US says it will use the talks with Tehran only to point out its troublemaking in Iraq. "The Iranians are part of the problem in Iraq; they are not part of the solution," says Raymond Tanter, a former National Security Council strategist under the first President Bush who heads the Iran Policy Committee. That group advocates "regime change" through an empowered Iranian opposition.

But Dobbins, who led the Bush administration's discussions with the Iranians over Afghanistan in 2001, says the Iranians were helpful then and should be encouraged to be helpful again. "We should be asking the Iranians to tell the Iraqis the same thing we are telling them: To form a government, don't divide the country, don't put any polarizing sectarian [figures] in charge of key ministries."

But especially given how even the announcement of talks has deflated a sense of urgency over Iran at the UN, one line of thinking holds that the talks should be given a chance to open new doors.

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