Iran Under Pressure from the West

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, third from left, visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2006

President Bush in his State of the Union address promised to "rally the world" against the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The next step in that effort came Thursday, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met in Vienna to discuss Iran. On the table was a resolution introduced by Britain, France and Germany, calling on the IAEA to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for what it calls Iran's "many failures and breaches of its obligations" under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The resolution notes that Iran's history of concealment of certain nuclear activities has produced an "absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes." The meeting adjourned, as expected, after a day of discussion, and will resume Friday.

The U.S. and its allies want to take the matter to the Security Council to ratchet up diplomatic pressure, and eventually seek sanctions, designed to force Iran to back down from what they believe is a nuclear weapons plan hidden within a civilian energy program. Efforts by France, Germany and Britain to achieve a negotiated solution to the crisis have stalled on Iranian intransigence. Now, U.S. and EU officials say that this week, for the first time, they've won the all-important backing of veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China for a toughly worded IAEA resolution. "It is important that [the Iranian leaders] understand ... that we are united in determining that they should not be able to carry on flouting their international obligations," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament on Wednesday.

But Russian support came at a price: At Moscow's insistence, the Security Council will not act on the Iran issue until after the next full meeting of the IAEA in March. Before then, IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei will provide member states with a full report, which, barring a complete climb-down by Tehran, will be the Nobel Peace Prize winner's harshest assessment to date of Iran's nuclear program, and will state his inability to certify that it exists for exclusively benign purposes. The delay will also give Russia five more weeks to pursue its own efforts to find a negotiated solution. Russia, which has helped Iran develop nuclear reactors, proposes enriching uranium for those reactors on Russian soil—a proposal that would eliminate the need for Iran to maintain its own enrichment facilities, which would be essential to any covert effort to create weapons-grade nuclear material.

Some Western diplomats say privately, however, that they no longer hold out much hope that Iran will agree voluntarily to give up all enrichment activities, since the regime's insistence on continuing some enrichment activities is a position that enjoys wide popular backing in Iran. In recent days, Tehran's negotiators tried to revive talks and avoid a date with the Security Council by advocating that they be allowed to continue enrichment for "research " purposes only. European officials rejected that proposal as insincere.

Getting Iran referred to the Security Council would be a major step forward in U.S. and European efforts to turn up the heat on Iran, but it is no panacea. China and Russia, both of which have significant economic ties to Iran, are not likely to agree to trade sanctions. Instead, the Council may begin by simply demanding that Iran comply with its obligations under the NPT. It could then move to more limited forms of sanction, such as imposing travel restrictions on members of the regime. Less clear is what might happen if diplomatic pressure fails to persuade Iran to back down. Military strikes by the U.S. or Israel could destroy individual facilities but would almost certainly raise the level of hostility toward the West throughout the region and provoke retaliation against U.S. interests in Iraq and elsewhere. Iran is threatening to retaliate if it is even referred to the Security Council, let alone made the target of sanctions. Tehran says referral will prompt it to end all voluntary cooperation with the IAEA. And oil prices have already risen on fears that Iran will retaliate by reducing its exports.

For all the diplomatic pressure that the U.S. and its allies are slowly building on Iran, Tehran could nonetheless resolve the standoff overnight. According to a draft of the IAEA resolution being circulated in Vienna this week, Iran could defuse the crisis by, among other things, reimposing the freeze on enrichment activities that it lifted last month and ratifying a treaty that requires more open access to nuclear inspectors. But if the past six months of defiant rhetoric from Tehran are any indicator of its intent, conciliatory concessions don't look very likely.