Iran nuclear stand-off: Why the war drumbeat has died down

Western countries are on alert for any decisive moves from Tehran that hint at an 'all-out bid' for an Iranian nuclear weapon. But in the meantime they are sticking to diplomatic measures.

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Two weeks after a much-anticipated report on Iran's nuclear program was released, Iran and its Western critics are still engaged in diplomatic battles but the beating of war drums has quieted.

Because Iran's progress has been mostly in the form of research, rather than any actual infrastructure, Western states will likely only take economic and diplomatic measures until Iran makes any decisive moves – such as expelling international monitors – that hint at an "all-out bid" for nuclear weapons, according to Reuters.

Today Iran announced it is preparing to downgrade diplomatic relations with Britain in retaliation for London's decision to cut all ties between Iran and the British banking system, which will deprive Iran of access to a critical international financial hub. The British ambassador to Tehran will be expelled if the emergency bill goes through, Agence France-Presse reports.

Since the release of the recent report from the United Nations nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the US and Canada have also ratcheted up their own measures against Iran. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for his part, has called on world leaders to freeze their ties with Iran's central bank. However, the angry rhetoric from Israel threatening a military attack on Iran's nuclear program has quieted, and the fight seems like it will remain a diplomatic one for now.

The report, which suggested that Iran could have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons, actually revealed little new information about the nuclear program, Reuters reports – although the rhetoric from Western countries is heightened enough to imply otherwise.

But for now at least, experts say there was nothing in the IAEA report that makes military action more likely. If anything, it points to the limits of the effectiveness of a military campaign, which would have to be weighed against the risk of starting a potentially catastrophic regional war.

The report was mainly based on information already known to Western intelligence agencies. It did not reveal the sort of new evidence of immediate danger that would lead Israel or the United States to take a decision now about whether they can live with an Iranian atomic bomb or must take urgent military action to prevent it.

"We know what's going on in (the monitored sites) now, and what's going on in them now is not indicative of an Iran that's racing toward a nuclear weapon," said [Andrea Berger of Britain's Royal United Services Institute]. "There might be something that would compel a change in thinking on the military option, but right now it doesn't have much utility. So other options might be better."

For now, the US sees its diplomatic measures as having an impact. President Obama's national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, said Tuesday that the US pressure campaign has "left Iran's leaders economically strained, diplomatically isolated, and rent by internal divisions," The New York Times reports. According to Mr. Donilon, Iran is having trouble obtaining materials for its uranium enrichment program and the economy is suffering from 20 percent inflation, high unemployment, and low growth.

However, according to a CNN analysis of Donilon's speech, the Obama administration official admitted "the Iranian regime has not fundamentally altered its behavior." He also praised China and Russia's cooperation and coordination with Western countries, saying that they supported previous rounds of sanctions implemented at the United Nations level and enforced them.

This time around, Russia and China – both veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council – have been outspoken critics of countries' individual decisions to increase pressure on Iran. They say such actions are aggravating the situation. "We believe pressuring and sanctions cannot fundamentally solve the Iranian nuclear issue. On the contrary, they will complicate and exacerbate the issue and intensify confrontation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Wednesday, according to Iran's PressTV.

Reuters reports that there are many possible steps for the US and its allies between their current pressure on Iran and a military option, particularly in the form of "economic weapons" – for example, formally sanctioning Iran's central bank, which is a clearinghouse for nearly all oil and gas payments. There are also sabotage and cyber warfare, such as the Stuxnet virus that hit Iranian nuclear facilities.

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