Nuclear report on Iran finds cooperation. Problem for Obama?

He's set a September deadline after which sanctions might be toughened. But China and Russia might not join in if Tehran is showing progress.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A new report on Iran by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency finds evidence of slowed uranium enrichment and of increased cooperation on the monitoring of known nuclear installations.

Both of those findings could throw a wrench in President Obama's plans to seek tougher international sanctions on Iran if Tehran does not respond positively to international calls for a halt in nuclear progress by the latter part of September.

What the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not explore in its report, details of which leaked out Friday, are the potential explanations for Iranian actions at the country's nuclear sites in recent months. But the reasons, experts on Iran and its nuclear history say, could be varied – from a conscious attempt to appear cooperative as an international deadline for action looms to complications from the deep political turmoil that Iran has experienced since its disputed presidential election June 12.

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For example, might Iran figure that showing some cooperation on the monitoring of its principal uranium enrichment facility in Natanz could be enough to dissuade China and Russia from joining Western powers in slapping tough new economic measures on the country?

Some initial indications on that could come as early as Wednesday, when six world powers – the UN Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany – are to meet in Frankfurt. That meeting will effectively kick off a month of international diplomacy expected to focus to a large degree on efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program.

During the fourth week of September, the UN General Assembly meets in New York and the Group of 20 is to meet in Pittsburgh. That's the deadline Mr. Obama has set by which Iran must either respond positively to entering talks on its nuclear ambitions or face a new round of economic sanctions.

The new IAEA report, to be taken up at the agency's mid-September general conference, finds that Iran has scaled back slightly on its uranium enrichment, operating fewer centrifuges than at the time of the last report in May. On the other hand, the report finds, Iran has continued installing new centrifuges, suggesting it may be preparing for a major ramp-up of enrichment activity at some point in the future.

According to the IAEA, Iran is now permitting better monitoring of its Natanz enrichment site with increased camera surveillance. And the report suggests that Iran allowed enhanced camera surveillance after the IAEA told Iranian officials that its inability to properly monitor the site was feeding Western intelligence speculation about Iran's goals.

Some Western intelligence agencies have surmised that Iran may be surreptitiously using the materials and knowledge it is gaining from Natanz and from continued missile development to try to build a viable nuclear weapon. Iran insists its nuclear program is for domestic power production only.

If China and Russia do prove over the coming weeks to be reluctant to proceed with toughened sanctions on Iran, some world leaders are beginning to suggest that new measures might be adopted by key economies independently of the Security Council.

In a closely watched meeting Thursday in Berlin between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader said the key objective is that "the major powers of the world unite" on stopping Iran's nuclear progress.

While a new Security Council resolution would be preferable, "it is possible for the coalition of the willing to do so even without a UN Security Council decision," Mr. Netanyahu said.

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