Why pressing Iran over nukes is a difficult road

New intelligence report says Iran is further from producing nuclear weapons than previously thought - perhaps reducing urgency of action.

The Iranian government is playing what is being called "a game of chicken" with the international community, first threatening to restart a key element of its suspended nuclear program this week, and then putting it off - only to announce it will reopen a sealed uranium conversion plant next week after all.

Regardless of whether the Iranians, who are in the midst of a postelection political transition, follow through on the threat, their recent actions - and the response of Western nations - suggest that a full-blown confrontation between the powers is probably not imminent, experts say.

The Europeans don't want one - and the Americans don't appear to be ready and united for one.

The three European countries that have been negotiating with Iran for a full suspension of its nuclear program did stick together and threaten Iran with reprisals - including referral to the United Nations Security Council - if it proceeded with plans to restart its nuclear efforts. That stand surprised some in the Bush administration and seemed to validate President Bush's second-term veering toward greater cooperation with allies.

But with the "EU 3," as Britain, Germany, and France are called, set to offer Iran extensive economic incentives in exchange for ending its nuclear ambitions, the Europeans continue to favor a strategy that differs widely from the Americans'.

Iran is on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, and US officials worry that a nuclear Iran would become a conduit for nuclear materials to other states or terrorist groups.

Divisions over Iran that characterized US policy during the first Bush term are on display again. When the freshly appointed US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, made his introductory rounds in New York this week, he reportedly broached the subject of Security Council action against Iran in talks with fellow ambassadors.

As the past undersecretary of State for arms control, Mr. Bolton was one of the administration's principal hawks on Iranian nukes.

But Bolton was debuting at the UN even as a new National Intelligence Estimate surfaced, first in an apparent leak to The Washington Post, that doubles to 10 years the estimated time it would take for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.

For some US experts, the estimate undercuts the viewpoint that action is urgently needed, making a tough international stance with Iran unlikely.

"The US and its allies are not in a position to talk about real, meaningful measures to punish Iran [for proceeding with its nuclear program]," says Daniel Brumberg, an Iran expert at Georgetown University in Washington.

He says the Europeans "are trying to play it tough, but the Iranians know it would be difficult for them to ever go through with it." At the same time, he says the Bush administration is not united on how far and how fast to proceed on Iran- not to mention the "delicate factor" of Iran's influence in Iraq and the cooperation the US needs for progress there. "They are on the horns of a dilemma that is of their own making," he says.

The flurry of discussion over Iran's nuclear ambitions came as Iran installed on Wednesday its new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Western observers expect the new president to adopt a more confrontational tone with the West and particularly the US - an approach closer to that of the reigning conservative mullahs than that of outgoing reformist president Mohammad Khatami.

In a letter to the EU3 foreign ministers, the lead Iranian negotiator in the talks, Hassan Rohani, said that Iran is intent on pursuing both the negotiations with the Europeans and its nuclear program, which he insisted is for peaceful purposes.

For some experts, this is part of the same strategy that has allowed Iran - not to mention North Korea - to advance in nuclear know-how. "We've seen this game before," says Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr. Wolfsthal says recent events appear at first glance to be a boon to the US, since the topic of Iran could reach the Security Council - where the Bush administration has long wanted it - without the blame for a negotiation failure to fall on the US.

But he questions how "successful" the US strategy of not directly negotiating with problematic nuclear wannabes like Iran and North Korea really has been. North Korea is thought to have quadrupled its number of nuclear weapons during the Bush presidency. "If the proof is in the pudding, then the results are not very good," he says.

Iran still wishes to avoid referral to the Security Council, but at the same time it knows that a referral is unlikely to result in any tough sanctions any time soon, most experts agree. "The unanimity isn't there," says Georgetown's Mr. Brumberg. He notes that Russia has close ties to Iran and is building a nuclear reactor there. Iran has also been developing relations with China and India.

US calculations on Iran are influenced by the key role that Iran plays in neighboring Iraq, experts say. With the Bush administration hoping to reduce troops, avoiding destabilizing trouble with Iran will be uppermost in some minds.

Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, says he sees such political calculations in the intelligence estimate for Iran that now puts any bomb a decade away.

"There may be some involved in the report who are frightened that Bush would use anything more imminent as a pretext to bomb, or others who got cold feet after the Iraq WMD intelligence that went wrong," Mr. Sokolski says.

In any case, he dismisses the estimate, noting the US developed its bomb in less than a decade. "Are we saying the Iranians are further behind technically than we were in 1940? It's absurd."

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