Expect Thursday's deadline for Iran to stop enriching uranium to pass with more of a whimper than a bang.
As the United States experiences what one observer calls "confrontation fatigue," and as international unity against a nuclear-armed Iran threatens to splinter under pressure, quick action against Iran is not likely – even though the Iranian leadership continues to taunt the West with rhetorical jabs.
It's been a week since Iran essentially said "no" to international offers of economic incentives in exchange for curtailing its nuclear program. Since then, two scenarios have emerged – one predicting the United Nations will move swiftly toward sanctions against Iran, and the other foreseeing a slow diplomatic response.
Patient and methodical will win out, most analysts say, because the US wants to preserve the semblance of international unity against Iran as long as possible. At the same time, these observers add, the likelihood of getting any sanctions soon – or any other meaningful action to pressure Iran – is not very good.
"Slow motion is likely to prevail," says George Perkovich, a proliferation expert with particular expertise in Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The key reason that a quick move to economic sanctions – something the US has hoped for – seems less likely now is that Russia and China have cooled to such a step, which they ostensibly supported just weeks ago.
In the meantime, the brief war between Israel and Hizbullah has diverted Western attention, put the wind in Iran's sails, and helped elevate the question of Iran's nuclear program to a topic of debate in the Muslim world. And it's not a debate that international powers are anxious to enter and lose in the eyes of Muslim populations – thus the likelihood of a reasoned and methodical approach.
"The argument for not taking a confrontational approach is looking right to more people, even to some hard-liners in the [Bush] administration," says Daniel Brumberg, an Iran expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "In the first place, this is an administration suffering from confrontation exhaustion or fatigue, but also this has become an image battle in some respects, and no one wants to lose that."
The Iranian leadership continues to put the nuclear question in terms of a grand Muslim-world-versus-the-West battle, insisting that Iran has a right to develop technology that traditional Western powers like the US and Britain would deny it. Iran insists its nuclear program is solely for peaceful energy development, but the US, European leaders, and many nuclear experts say its years of clandestine research and insistence on uranium enrichment suggest otherwise.
Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad scoffed at the looming UN Security Council deadline, calling the US and Britain the "origin of all disturbances in the world" since World War II. Although not repeating his past call for Israel to be "wiped off" the map, he did call Israel's creation a "tale" that has denied Palestinians "a single day of peace."
Mr. Ahmadinejad also said that Iran's Aug. 22 response to the offer of incentives was an "exceptional opportunity" to end the dispute with dialogue. In Iran's response, it did offer an eventual suspension of enrichment once talks were under way, but Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said this week that Iran's program for fully mastering the fuel cycle is "irreversible."
But Mr. Perkovich says that Iran is clearly in violation of its obligations as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and should have been "hauled before the Security Council" years ago.
Still, he says the international context will probably dictate a slow approach. "We have this debate going on," he says, between those who want quick action and those who say the problem is that "right now, more people fear the US more than Iran." He adds, "So they are counseling patience."
This is not, however, the approach that Perkovich, with long experience watching nuclear developments, would like to see. "We ought to fast-forward," he says, by skipping the months of additional debate and moving to a vote on sanctions in the Security Council. "We should dare the Russians and Chinese to veto" a sanctions regime against Tehran, he says.
Perkovich admits that the problem with his argument is that a failed Security Council initiative would seem to leave military action against Iran's nuclear installations as the only option.
Indeed, one reason the Russians and Chinese are softening on pursuing sanctions is that they fear it would open the door to military action down the road. While they may also be concerned that not going along with other Security Council members could precipitate military action outside it, they are probably calculating that neither the US nor anyone else (for example, Israel) is there yet.
"The Russians and Chinese may be worried that derailing the sanctions route now could mean that [that] alternative is exhausted, and could lead to other actions they don't want to see," says Mr. Brumberg. "But they may be calculating that while that time might come, it's not now."
The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has suggested that the US will come up with a resolution that will answer the worries of those fearful of an Iraq-like scenario, where resolutions are later interpreted as opening the door to the use of force. But Mr. Bolton has opened the door to another alternative to Security Council sanctions. In that scenario, countries thwarted in the Council would join the US in imposing sanctions on Iran.
On Monday, Bolton told reporters at the UN, "You can envision sanctions being imposed outside of the Security Council, as the United States has unilaterally imposed sanctions on Iran pursuant to its own statutes, and other governments can do the same."
But some experts doubt such a "sanctions regime of the willing" would have much impact, especially if it were limited to restrictions on Iranian travel and officials' bank accounts. Japan, for example, is already said to be pushing for any sanctions to exclude oil exports, since its economy depends on Iranian oil.