Amid rising international tensions over Iran's growing influence in Iraq and the Middle East, the United States embarks this week on an effort to slap Tehran with a third Security Council resolution of sanctions over its nuclear program.
After top American leaders including President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week singled out Iran for its "troublesome" actions in Iraq and the region, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner followed up with a warning that the international community had to prepare for the possibility of war with Tehran – a stark message from which he later backed off slightly.
But that tone will pervade a meeting of high-level diplomats from the Security Council's five permanent members – the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China – plus Germany in Washington on Friday.
That meeting – called by Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of State for political affairs – is in preparation for another meeting a week later of foreign ministers of the same countries, who will be in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
The US will argue that because Tehran has done nothing to curtail uranium-enrichment activities, as demanded in two Security Council resolutions passed in March and December 2006, it's time to turn up the heat. The March resolution included sanctions and a three-month window, a kind of deadline for the Iranian government, after which the Council was to consider tougher punitive steps.
Tehran not only ignored the deadline but publicly proclaimed its advances in levels of uranium enrichment, a process that can lead to the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Now, the US says the Security Council must either increase pressure through additional sanctions or risk being dismissed by Iran's government.
"The 90 days [specified in the March resolution] for Iran to respond or face further action have come and gone, and then some, so we're working on moving forward on the sanctions," says Richard Grenell, spokesman for the US mission to the UN in New York. A third resolution is the international community's logical response to Tehran, he says.
Even as Washington ratchets up the pressure on Tehran, it is not clear that the Security Council is ready to go along.
As usual, Russia and China are wary of quick action. That is especially true now, in light of a "work plan" the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) crafted with the Iranian government in August for answering outstanding questions about the country's nuclear program.
At the time, the agency's director, Mohamed ElBaradei, called the agreement a "significant step" and a conciliatory move by Tehran, which he said appeared to be slowing its enrichment program for political reasons. Many analysts also saw Iran's willingness to enter into agreement with the IAEA as a political move, but designed to blunt any momentum for further sanctions. That analysis was bolstered when Iranian officials announced days later that its program had installed 3,000 centrifuges for delivering higher levels of enriched uranium.
"The West thought the Iranian nation would give in after just a resolution, but now we have taken another step in the nuclear progress," said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in announcing the threshold of activity.
Officials with knowledge of the diplomatic proceedings say Germany, too, has joined the foot-draggers on additional sanctions. Though not a permanent Security Council member and therefore not a voter on any resolution, Germany is key to the European diplomatic effort with Tehran and would have to sign on to any sanctions the European Union would approve.
"We would have to have agreement [for more sanctions] among the EU countries first," says a senior European diplomat.
Why Germany would balk now at further punitive action – after Chancellor Angela Merkel said in February 2006 that "we must take the Iranian president's rhetoric seriously" – is unclear. Some analysts cite Germany's strong and expanding economic ties to Iran. Germany is Iran's largest trading partner, and much of Iranian industry relies on German engineering and supplies.
On the other hand, German banks have recently said they are pulling back on activities with Iran as a result of UN and separate US sanctions.
Other experts say at least part of the German diplomatic corps does not want to jump to association with what it fears could become an inexorable path to military action against Iran – led by the US and increasingly given moral support by the French under President Nicholas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Kouchner.
The senior European diplomat, who requested anonymity to more freely discuss the European context for the push for additional sanctions, says the tougher language from French leaders does not mean "they are ready to go for the military option." But it does indicate France shares the US's impatience toward Tehran.
He says the French are saying, "If we can't get this [additional sanctions] in the UN, then let's try outside. We may have to go that route."
What this looks like is more of the "good cop/bad cop" routine that the international community has tried with Iran for several years, but now the French have joined the US on the "bad cop" side. The result, some observers conclude, could be months of discussions in New York.
"I just don't see anything happening soon," says one UN official with close knowledge of the Security Council's workings. The IAEA-Tehran work plan, he says, presents a new wrinkle.
The US mission's Mr. Grenell counters that the "IAEA track doesn't negate the process of resolutions – and that's resolutions, plural – with sanctions."
But the UN official says Mr. ElBaradei's work with Tehran is still likely to have an impact in the Council. "We have to anticipate," he says, "that it could put things off for a few months."