Two weeks after approving tough measures against North Korea for testing a nuclear weapon, the United Nations Security Council is edging closer to hitting Iran with sanctions for failing to halt its uranium-enrichment program.
Just don't expect the same swift and relatively comprehensive action that a unanimous Council took against Pyongyang earlier this month. That action came within a week of North Korea shaking Northeast Asia with its explosion of a plutonium-fueled device.
While the two situations may sound similar, the objective of action on Iran is different, Western diplomats say – designed more to cajole Tehran into serious negotiations than as punishment.
But even that nuanced approach is not overcoming reluctance, notably from China and Russia. At the same time, the United States is not in full sync with its European allies on a proposed resolution drafted by the so-called European Union three, or EU-3 – France, Britain, and Germany.
The EU-3, plus representatives of the US, Russia, and China, were to have met Thursday for an initial discussion of the draft text. But Russia – a veto-wielding member of the Security Council – was already signaling objections to some measures.
Indeed, while some proliferation experts say a slow and soft approach toward Iran fails to draw on the sense of urgency the North Korean test created, others conclude that a graduated approach is probably all the international community can agree on.
"The alternative can't work. You're not going to get the Russians and the Chinese, or the Italians or any other country that matters in terms of Iran, to go along with something more drastic at first," says George Perkovich, a nuclear- security expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "The reality is that these need to be UN sanctions, so they are legally binding on everyone."
The early signs of disagreement on Iran suggest long and difficult negotiations ahead on any resolution. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week said she hopes for a strong message from the Council to Tehran on its nuclear program, but acknowledged it could still take "weeks."
Still, some diplomats say it is better to go for modest sanctions at first to "get the Iranians' attention" than to go for tough measures from the outset that risk dooming any cooperation from Iran – or a veto in the Security Council.
"We want to send a clear political signal," though one that does not push Iran to follow the example of North Korea, which left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and kicked out inspectors as international pressures grew, says a European diplomat in Washington with full knowledge of the proposed resolution. "That is the opposite of what we want. We want the Iranians to return to the negotiating table."
As a result, the Iran resolution "is the first step on a ladder that has at least six, seven, 10 steps," says the diplomat, who requested anonymity to comment on a delicate negotiating process. "Our goal is not to punish, but to encourage Iran to do what is necessary" to hold talks with all the parties, including the US.
Measures in the draft resolution include a halt to international travel by Iranian nuclear scientists, measures to cut off Iranian access to foreign bank accounts, and a ban on trade in nuclear equipment and missile parts, according to diplomats.
The resolution would make enforcement of its measures legally binding on UN member states by making specific reference to Article 41 of the UN Charter. "What this draft says is that it's time for the Council to consider measures under Article 41, so that's a step forward in seriousness," says a European diplomat in New York, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Still, the proposed resolution is raising eyebrows among some proliferation experts because it includes an exemption from sanctions for construction of the light-water reactor the Russians are building in Iran at Bushehr.
"OK, so they want the Russians and Chinese on board, but at the price of grandfathering Bushehr? After getting something strong on North Korea, it's a step back to come out of the box with something so weak on Iran," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.
Not only would including the Bushehr plant in the sanctions almost certainly draw a veto from Russia, but it would be used by the Iranians as fodder for their argument that the West does not allow equal development opportunities to developing countries, others argue. "If Bushehr were part of the sanctions, Iran would say, 'That is the proof that a country of the South is not allowed to produce nuclear electricity,' " says the European diplomat in Washington.
But Mr. Sokolski says that reasoning overlooks the years of Iranian noncompliance with its international nuclear obligations – and the dangers of an operational light-water reactor. "Light-water reactors are not just a way to boil water," he says. "They bring you closer to creating a bomb."
Yet even as the debate over Iran sanctions intensifies, Tehran is reportedly about to take another step forward in its uranium-enrichment process. According to Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran is testing equipment that would double the capacity of its uranium-enrichment facilities.