Despite fresh evidence that Iran is accelerating and diversifying its suspected development of nuclear weapons, the Bush administration appears willing to wait and see - at least for now - if international pressure short of force can persuade the Tehran regime to give up its nuclear program.
The explanation can be found in the increasingly unified voice with which the international community is telling the Iranian government, in effect: "Forget the nukes, or face isolation."
The growing unity is prompting the US to follow a line with Tehran that roughly parallels its approach to North Korea and its provocative nuclear steps. In both cases, the emphasis is more multilateral pressure than unilateral action.
Yet while the US is looking to regional pressure to dissuade North Korea from its nuclear ambitions, "in this [Iranian] case the pressure is not so much regional, but from countries who do business with Iran," says Miriam Rajkumar, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here.
"The administration seems to have concluded, at least for the time being," she says, "that working with the European Union and Russia in particular, both of which do substantial business with Tehran, is the way to go about it." And part of the formula, adds Ms. Rajkumar, is for the US to play down its image as a threat to Iran. "That would be key to getting Iran to back off its nuclear program."
Last month President Bush said the US would not tolerate Iran becoming a nuclear power. But in a major speech in Poland on May 31, the president also laid out a vision for stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction through strengthened international cooperation. It's this multilateral approach that the administration is emphasizing - and which many of America's international partners, stung by the US's go-it-alone approach to Iraq, now want to encourage.
As a result, some of Iran's traditional partners are sounding tough on Tehran's nuclear program:
• The European Union is indicating that trade cooperation with Iran hinges on the country verifiably giving up any ambitions of developing nuclear arms.
• Moscow, which is helping Iran build the first of several planned nuclear reactors in southern Iran, is increasing pressure on Tehran for assurances that the plant is meant for peaceful energy-generating purposes.
• Europeans and Russians are calling on Tehran to accept tougher international inspections of its nuclear facilities to erase the darkening clouds of suspicion.
At the same time, the US State Department is pressing for a crackdown on the US operations of the leading Iranian opposition organization, which the Bush administration lists as a "foreign terrorist organization." Curtailing the activities of the People's Mujaheddin would be well-received by a Tehran regime wary of American intentions.
Going farther to squelch Tehran's concerns about US interventionist behavior, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday the US should "not get in the middle of [Iran's] family fight too deeply," signalling intentions to stay out of the ongoing tug-of-war between the elected reform-minded faction of President Mohammad Khatami, pro-democracy students who have protested recently for expanded rights, and the conservative mullahs who largely run the country.
At the same time, it is the Mujaheddin's political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has exposed the existence of secret nuclear facilities in Iran - revelations that shocked international nuclear officials and that have prompted much of the building pressure on the Tehran regime.
THE National Council again this week claimed to reveal new nuclear sites in Iran, detailing in a Washington press conference Tuesday the existence of facilities intended for uranium enrichment in Kolahdouz near Tehran. The significance of the new sites, according to Alireza Jafarzadeh of the Council's US office, is that they are under the control of Iran's Defense Industry Organization - a branch of the Defense Ministry.
That affiliation and the new sites, which the Council claims were developed beginning only in February, offer additional support to mounting evidence that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons, Mr. Jafarzadeh says.
The Council's revelations came a day before Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was to visit Tehran to gather details of the nuclear program. He was also set to press the government to sign an agreement with the IAEA to accept a regime of more intrusive, unannounced inspections of nuclear sites.
The US, Europe, and Russia support having Iran sign an "additional protocol" to its agreements as a signatory of the Nonproliferation Treaty. Up to now, Iran has suggested its willingness to sign the protocol, but only in exchange for legal access to advanced nuclear energy technology.
Still, many proliferation experts say even the additional protocol won't be enough in the long run to stop Iran from going nuclear. "All it does is allow you to do more intrusively something that's not very effective to begin with," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.
He says even intrusive monitoring allows secretive weapons programs to remain one jump ahead of inspections - while loopholes in the Nonproliferation Treaty allow countries like Iran to proceed legally "until they break out and in a matter of weeks reveal they've got the bomb." But Mr. Sokolski believes a united international front against Iranian proliferation can work - if accompanied by the carrot of foreign business cooperation.