Why Bush may avoid fiery words on Iran

With diplomacy in full swing, he is likely to tread delicately on Tehran's nuclear program in his speech Tuesday night.

When President Bush turns to international issues in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Iran's nuclear program can be expected to figure prominently in his comments.

But he's more likely to talk of diplomacy than of an "axis of evil," given the US effort to join other Western powers in seeking to halt Iran's march to nuclear status without alienating the Iranian people or other countries Mr. Bush will need on board.

Two events, one Monday and one Thursday, are diplomatic bookends to his speech, underscoring the intensifying campaign aimed at stopping Iran from joining the club of countries that have the nuclear bomb.

Monday, foreign ministers of the United Nations Security Council's permanent 5 members, plus Germany, are set to meet in London to try to coordinate an approach for meeting the Iran crisis. On Thursday, an emergency session of the 35-country board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been called, with the US and European countries hoping for Iran's referral to the Security Council.

Bush's words are likely to strike a different, more diplomatic approach to crisis for his administration: one that is more consultative and less "bring it on," more reflective of factors on the ground than the administration's treatment three years ago of Iraq.

For the US, a more nuanced approach

Although some observers insist that the diplomatic maneuvering is laying the groundwork for an eventual military strike, the US approach to Iran is one that recognizes not just the difficulties of carrying out a successful military solution, but also contemplates the wide-ranging repercussions of military action.

"The war in Iraq was supposed to be part of the solution to these regimes, but instead ... it has seriously handcuffed the US in dealing with Iran," says Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"The Iranian [nuclear] program has advanced while we've been bogged down in Iraq. It has accelerated, and it's become a national security issue for the Iranian people. Because of this," he adds, "and because there are no good unilateralist options with Iran, the Bush administration is working to get the European Union and Russia and China and other states to help force Iran to back down."

This desire to find a diplomatic solution, and to have the bulk of the international community support whatever measures are eventually taken, helps explain why the US is sounding less confrontational on Iran. For example, Bush last week expressed interest in a Russian plan to defuse the crisis by offering to enrich Iran's uranium on its soil.

"To their credit, the administration has learned from its mistakes" in dealing with the Iraq crisis, says Jon Wolfsthal, a non-proliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They now recognize that whatever action is eventually taken against Iran is going to have to be done with international partners - and they realize they're not going to keep that coalition together if they are pushing now for rash action."

'Advantage Iran'

Some experts worry that Iran appears to be winning the diplomatic game so far - in part because much of the world remains suspicious of the US in the wake of Iraq.

"Iran is trying, very cleverly, to divide the international community, and [so far] they've done that extremely well," says Pierre Goldschmidt, a former IAEA deputy director general. Noting that Iran has continued to improve its enrichment program while keeping the international community at bay, Mr. Goldschmidt assesses the last three years in two words: "Advantage Iran."

The Iranians, for their part, are indicating that they want to avoid referral to the Security Council - a move that would be a black spot on Iran's international reputation and would signal a toughening of the world's approach.

Evidence that Iran cares about staying off the UN agenda came last week when Iranian officials threatened to forcibly close the Strait of Hormuz - through which more than 25 percent of the world's oil production passes - if it is referred to the Security Council. Days before, Iran threatened to immediately resort to reprocessing uranium if it is called onto the carpet at the UN.

The international response, says Goldschmidt, should be to refer Iran to the Security Council - but not with the goal of imposing sanctions at this time. The objective should be to get the Security Council to authorize the IAEA to undertake more robust inspections in Iran, he says.

The US seems fairly confident it has the votes to get the issue to the Security Council, Mr. Wolfsthal says. What the US must consider now is its strategy once it gets there. "The Security Council is not an end, and what the US has to deal with is the lack of trust among countries that feel they've seen this move before and don't want to see it play again," he says.

Iran's nuclear program: no mystery

Many experts have concluded that a diplomatic solution is going to take a lot more time beyond this week - time they say Iran can still try to use to its advantage.

"The bad news is that all of this is going to take time, but the good news is that we have time," says Carnegie's Mr. Cirincione. The world knows "a lot more" about Iran's nuclear program than it did about Iraq's or does about North Korea's, he says, and no one thinks Iran is on the verge of getting the bomb.

The time element explains why the US and its partners are seeking to stop Iran's nuclear march without alienating the Iranian population. "If we can contain the program," Cirincione says, "we can buy the time necessary for the Iranian people themselves to make the changes in their government that can lead to a change in policies."

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