A defiant Iran banks on a split at UN

The Security Council receives a report Friday that gauges Iran's latest nuclear activities.

With neither side blinking, Iran and the international community are preparing to take the next step in their showdown over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The confrontation returns Friday to the United Nations Security Council, where the Iranian regime is hoping a divide-and-conquer strategy will prevent the UN body from taking any coercive action to limit its nuclear program. It may be a bold gambit: Just a month ago, the Council acted - unanimously - to give Iran 30 days to show it had ceased uranium enrichment.

But the Security Council, in fact, is split over the need for action against a defiant Tehran - increasing the likelihood that steps such as economic sanctions will be taken not by the UN, but by a "coalition of the willing" of the US and equally adamant allies.

"Of course we have a strong preference for action by the Security Council, for legal reasons ... and [because] it sends a clear message to the Iranian people that action is against the regime and not them," says a French diplomat who requested anonymity because of the delicate nature of the negotiations. "But at the same time, we can't remain forever doing nothing in the case Iran goes forward with its process."

The United States as well has been emphasizing its preference for united Security Council action against Iran. But it is also floating with allies the possibility of steps outside the UN if the Security Council proves unable to bridge its differences - essentially with the US, Britain, and France on one side, and Russia and China on the other.

Beginning Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to attend a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Sofia, Bulgaria, where the issue of Iran and its relevance to the Atlantic alliance is expected to be raised, according to NATO officials.

The 30-day pause in deliberations on Iran was designed to give the Iranian government an opportunity to cease uranium enrichment, reassure the world that it is not proceeding along a path to nuclear armament, and stave off further international action.

But if anything, Iran has used the days preceding a return to the Security Council to rattle the international community: not only to boast of a perfected enrichment process, but to do it with veiled references to secret enrichment sites and to accelerated nuclear development.

The Iranian game plan appears to be to set up a confrontation with the West that not only divides the international community but shatters any consensus against its nuclear program, analysts say.

"They seem to be trying to replay the good-cop-bad-cop strategy the US and EU [European Union] used against them, but in their own way where they play both the good cop and the bad cop," says Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

He points to Iran's diplomatic forays to Russia and Persian Gulf states, as well as toward Sudan, even as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad taunts the West. And he says Iran is trying to look reasonable and cooperative to friends (like Russia) and Muslim countries, while also appearing to stand up to Western powers.

The Iranian strategy may be working, both at home and when it comes to the UN. Domestically, the outspoken Mr. Ahmadinejad is winning points with his anti-Western stance, even as he fails to deliver on the bread-and-butter issues that brought him to power.

"This could be part of his domestic political calculations," says Joseph Cirincione, director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "The more he postures as standing up to a US positioning itself for war, the more he consolidates his power."

Then there's the UN: A month after the Security Council approved a watered-down statement on Iran, world powers seem no closer to consensus on diplomatic action, such as "smart" sanctions aimed at Iranian officials.

Initially, the US, Britain, and France are set on seeking something more from the Council than the simple "presidential statement" that was approved a month ago. This time they want a so-called "Chapter 7 resolution," which would designate Iran a threat to international security - a step that would open the door to sanctions and eventually even military action.

In the days leading up to Council deliberations, the US is reiterating that it is not seeking sanctions at this time. "The resolution we are contemplating ... would not be a sanctions resolution," the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, said Tuesday. "So from our perspective, we are going to take it one step at a time."

But for China and Russia, a Chapter 7 resolution puts the Council on a course of action, including sanctions, even if the text does not specifically call for it. And it also starts looking increasingly like the diplomatic road the US took before going to war with Iraq, some experts say.

That helps explain why neither veto-wielding nation is likely to go along with a tough new resolution. "I think the Chapter 7 route is dead on arrival," says Mr. Cirincione. "The US can keep talking about it, but our own policies have doomed it."

Specifically, he says the US appears to be "following the playbook on Iraq," by insisting it wants a diplomatic solution even as it continues to hold out the possibility of military action. "That may not be what's happening," he says, "but to a number of countries out there, it looks that way."

US officials appear to be aware of this perception. Secretary Rice this week said the US is "aware Iran is not Iraq." But at the same time, she warned that the Security Council's relevance to international security is on the line in the Iranian issue.

"We're starting to hear the US use the Iraq language - that if the Security Council doesn't act, it becomes an irrelevant organization," says Mr. Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations. "The strategy may be to put together a coalition of the willing to apply sanctions, but you can't go that route without denigrating the Security Council first."

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