Iran nuclear gauntlet in US court

Tehran plans a response to UN demands Tuesday, but it says it will keep enriching uranium.

Iran has lobbed the confrontation over its nuclear program back to the international community's side of the court, with what appears to be a decision not to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

The question now becomes how quickly the United States in particular can get its international partners to approve the sanctions against Tehran that they have long threatened – and whether those sanctions will even matter.

The United Nations Security Council has demanded that Iran suspend nuclear enrichment by Aug. 31.

With Iran feeling emboldened after the performance of its client organization, Hizbullah, in its war with Israel, and with the US facing deepening problems in Iraq, the Iranian leadership may not believe it has a lot to worry about, analysts say.

"The Iranians are feeling pretty confident and full of themselves right now, so that has probably only enhanced their calculation that they can defy anything the Security Council throws at them," says Patrick Lang, a Middle East specialist and former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst.

Iran was set to unveil Tuesday its response to an offer from the European Union, joined by the US and Russia, that outlined an economic package in exchange for halting its uranium enrichment program. But all indications were that the response, while perhaps not an outright "no," would essentially be negative.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Monday that Iran would not bow to the demands of "arrogant powers and the US," and would "continue its path" toward the development of nuclear power. Also Monday, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said "the suspension of uranium enrichment is not possible anymore" because of the "technical advancement of Iranian scientists."

In a step Monday that would probably ratchet up the confrontation further, Iran denied UN inspectors access to an underground site that figures at the center of speculation over Iran's nuclear program. Iran turned away the inspectors from the Natanz facility, according to the Associated Press, an act that UN officials said would constitute a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

At a press conference Monday, President Bush said he hopes the international community will move quickly on sanctions if Iran says no to international demands. "In order for the UN to be effective, there must be consequences if people thumb their nose at the United Nations Security Council," Mr. Bush said.

Iran continues to insist its nuclear program is fully peaceful and designed for civilian nuclear power. But US and European officials believe Iran's true aim is to develop nuclear weapons. In that context, Iran's "technical advancement" has prompted the international community to press for an end to its uranium enrichment program.

Behind the diplomatic wrangling over Iran's nuclear program looms the question of just how far – or close – Tehran is from actually developing a nuclear weapon. US officials including Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte have said Iran is at least five years away from developing the bomb. But some nuclear specialists believe Iranian scientists are much closer to mastering the process that would put them on a "path of no return" to joining the world's nuclear club.

With the window for stopping a nuclear Iran seen to be gradually closing, the US has been pressing for sanctions. The UN Security Council voted in July to move toward a sanctions regime if Tehran did not suspend enrichment by the end of this month.

The US is now calling Iran's announcement Tuesday irrelevant and is pressing for sanctions to be adopted as quickly as possible in September.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said last week that the Security Council should move quickly to punish Iran, noting that the international community had given it ample time to weigh its response.

Mr. Burns also sought to broaden the circle of countries interested in seeing Iran's ambitions stopped, saying the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah had heightened suspicions of Iran. "There is heightened concern about the policy of a country that flexes its muscles," Burns told reporters.

Reflecting that perspective, Bush said at his press conference that there must be "more than one voice speaking clearly" to Iran. "Dates are fine," he added. "But what really matters is will. And one of the things I will continue to remind our friends and allies is the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran."

Iran has sounded more aggressive recently in some of its foreign-policy pronouncements, a tendency that no doubt worries many of Tehran's neighbors, says Alex Vatanka, an Iran analyst at Jane's defense and intelligence information group in Alexandria, Va. "Iran's leaders have made a point of publicly criticizing Arab leaders, especially for their response to the [Israel-Hizbullah] conflict, saying things like, 'What happened to Arab honor?' " he notes.

Such pronouncements certainly raise the worry level among many Middle East governments about Iran's nuclear ambitions, while adding to growing concerns about the growing appeal of radical Islam as a political force in the region.

But they also suggest that Iran's highest goal remains an enhancement of its standing in the region, Mr. Vatanka says.

Given that, Vatanka believes Tehran will continue to try to play the nuclear issue like a chess game and not move to open confrontation with the US and the West. "They know they could still overplay their hand," he says.

Mr. Lang says that Tehran, increasingly confident the US is not going to take the kind of military action that would end its program, is using the confrontation to further its other goals.

"They're having a good time trying us," he says. The perception that Hizbullah held its own, opposition to the US, defiance of the international community on its nuclear ambitions: "All this," he says, "has great propaganda value for them in the Muslim world."

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