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The likely US course on Iran: Go slow

Aug. 31 is the deadline for Tehran to stop enriching uranium, but US probably won't urge swift sanctions.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2006


Expect Thursday's deadline for Iran to stop enriching uranium to pass with more of a whimper than a bang.

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As the United States experiences what one observer calls "confrontation fatigue," and as international unity against a nuclear-armed Iran threatens to splinter under pressure, quick action against Iran is not likely – even though the Iranian leadership continues to taunt the West with rhetorical jabs.

It's been a week since Iran essentially said "no" to international offers of economic incentives in exchange for curtailing its nuclear program. Since then, two scenarios have emerged – one predicting the United Nations will move swiftly toward sanctions against Iran, and the other foreseeing a slow diplomatic response.

Patient and methodical will win out, most analysts say, because the US wants to preserve the semblance of international unity against Iran as long as possible. At the same time, these observers add, the likelihood of getting any sanctions soon – or any other meaningful action to pressure Iran – is not very good.

"Slow motion is likely to prevail," says George Perkovich, a proliferation expert with particular expertise in Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Russia, China, and Israel developments

The key reason that a quick move to economic sanctions – something the US has hoped for – seems less likely now is that Russia and China have cooled to such a step, which they ostensibly supported just weeks ago.

In the meantime, the brief war between Israel and Hizbullah has diverted Western attention, put the wind in Iran's sails, and helped elevate the question of Iran's nuclear program to a topic of debate in the Muslim world. And it's not a debate that international powers are anxious to enter and lose in the eyes of Muslim populations – thus the likelihood of a reasoned and methodical approach.

"The argument for not taking a confrontational approach is looking right to more people, even to some hard-liners in the [Bush] administration," says Daniel Brumberg, an Iran expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "In the first place, this is an administration suffering from confrontation exhaustion or fatigue, but also this has become an image battle in some respects, and no one wants to lose that."

The Iranian leadership continues to put the nuclear question in terms of a grand Muslim-world-versus-the-West battle, insisting that Iran has a right to develop technology that traditional Western powers like the US and Britain would deny it. Iran insists its nuclear program is solely for peaceful energy development, but the US, European leaders, and many nuclear experts say its years of clandestine research and insistence on uranium enrichment suggest otherwise.

Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad scoffed at the looming UN Security Council deadline, calling the US and Britain the "origin of all disturbances in the world" since World War II. Although not repeating his past call for Israel to be "wiped off" the map, he did call Israel's creation a "tale" that has denied Palestinians "a single day of peace."