But don't be deceived by the rising rhetoric. There's unlikely to be any kind of showdown any time soon for one overarching reason there is simply little appetite among the key players in the dispute to escalate matters. The IAEA had already in principle decided, at its previous board meeting in January, to refer Iran to the Security Council, yet Monday's meeting expected to last up to three days is still expected to offer Tehran another 30 days in which to cut a deal. Veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China remain resolutely opposed to sanctions, which conflict with their own national economic interests, and it's not immediately clear exactly what outcome the U.S. which currently holds the rotating Security Council chair would seek from a Council discussion on the Iran issue. While U.S. ambassador John Bolton warned that Iran will face "tangible and painful consequences," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stressed that sanctions were unlikely to be an immediate option. So, even if the matter does get to the Security Council in the coming weeks, Iran will likely be given a new deadline to comply with a more forceful international demand.
Touting evidence to help convince wavering allies that Iran is engaged in a covert bomb program also carries its own risks: The evidence is mostly circumstantial, much of it resting on the contents of a stolen Iranian laptop computer. And considering how things turned out when the U.S. made its case in the security council about Iraqi WMDs in the run-up to the war, Washington's credibility on these issues isn't exactly strong. Moreover, nothing will weaken diplomatic support for U.S. positions on Iran faster than associating them with the Bush administration's well-known appetite for regime change in Iran.
If the U.S. and its allies are confronted by the difficulties in mustering support for sanctions against Iran, much less any form of military action, Iran's defiant posture should also be read with a measure of skepticism. Despite Tehran's insistence on exercising its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, the New York Times reports that Iran is as much as ten years away from being able to perfect the kind of industrial-scale enrichment that Tehran has threatened in exchange for Security Council referral. And while its nuclear stance is remarkably popular across the political spectrum at home, even building a bomb wouldn't answer the regime's basic problem: How to create jobs for the millions of young Iranians chafing under their poverty, who elected President Ahmadinejad on promises to put food on their tables. Foreign investment and trade remains the key to transforming Iran's economic prospects, and prospects for attracting either would be doomed by a confrontation with the West.
So, despite all the bluster from all sides, the search for a compromise formula on Iranian enrichment activities remains very much alive. A Russian proposal to enrich the fuel for Iran's reactors on its own soil so as to prevent material being diverted for further enrichment for a bomb program right now remains the most likely contender. There's no deal yet, because Tehran is insisting that it retain the right to continue small-scale enrichment for research purposes on its own soil, a demand flatly rejected by the West. But the fact that the parties continue to negotiate even as the gears of diplomacy slowly turn suggests that, much evidence to the contrary, both sides may well find a way out of the deadlock.