Time Runs Out for Iran at the U.N. Now What?

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vows defiance at a rally near Tehran on Thursday

With the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog having reported on Friday that Iran has failed to meet a Security Council demand to cease uranium enrichment, the Islamic Republic ought to be feeling the heat. But if it is, Tehran certainly isn't showing it.

Not only did Iran fail to heed the 30-day deadline, it has actually announced new breakthroughs in its enrichment experiments and warned that it plans to expand its activities and perhaps even export its know-how to other countries. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei told the Security Council on Friday that Iran had not answered the questions that would satisfy concerns over its nuclear intentions. But Iran's defiance, which has included saber-rattling about how it would respond to any potential U.S. military action , may actually be based on a sober diplomatic calculation: The U.S. has been unable to forge a U.N. consensus behind any steps to pressure Iran, partly because of skepticism over Washington's own intentions.

Russia and China, for instance, haven't budged in their opposition to imposing Security Council sanctions on Iran, and the U.S. isn't even going to try to get a sanctions resolution now. Instead, the U.S. and its key allies will push for another Security Council resolution, reiterating the demand for Iran to cease enrichment activities under Chapter 7 of the U.N.'s charter — which would deem the issue a threat to global security, making non-compliance punishable by sanctions or even military action. Even that may be further than Russia and China are prepared to go. Indeed, U.S. officials have been tamping down expectations of Security Council action, talking instead about assembling a "coalition of the willing" outside of U.N. channels to pressure Iran through financial and other measures.

The "willing," this time, may not be many. Iran's status as the world's fourth-largest oil exporter will likely preclude significant progress in isolating it — the rising tension between the West and Iran has already been cited as a major factor driving oil prices to record highs. Also, Russia, China and many in Western Europe fear that Washington may be preparing the way for another "regime-change" intervention in the Middle East, a course of action they'd deem a more immediate danger to global security than anything being cooked up in Iran's nuclear labs.

Iran's defiance may be premised on the reasonable expectation that an escalation of the crisis will exacerbate divisions in the international community and allow it to win the battle to maintain at least a limited enrichment capability. Indeed, some analysts believe Iran will eventually reintroduce some version of the proposal to enrich its reactor fuel in Russia while maintaining a small enrichment facility at home for research purposes — a plan that could hold more appeal for U.S. allies if the most likely alternative appears to be confrontation. Divisions among Western governments are certainly plain to see, both over what punishments should be threatened for non-compliance and over what if any rewards should be offered for compliance.

The Bush Administration's insistence that military action remains an option has alarmed some allies, but differences are evident on the diplomatic front, as well. Germany's new conservative Chancellor, with the support of Britain, has repeatedly urged the Bush Administration to hold direct talks with Iran, warning that there won't be a diplomatic solution unless the two key protagonists discuss their differences. "It's amazing that when we're in a bilateral position, or kind of just negotiating one on one, somehow the world ends up turning the tables on us," President Bush answered on April 10 in answer to a question on why the Administration won't talk to Iran. "And I'm not going to put my country in that position — our country in that position." Needless to say, that reasoning is hardly going to convince the Europeans, or the senior U.S. Senators from both sides of the aisle who have also begun urging direct talks with Tehran.

The real reason the Administration is reluctant to hold direct talks with Iran is more simple: while its own Iran policy tilts towards regime change, the diplomatic strategy being promoted by the Europeans requires that the U.S. essentially give up that goal by renouncing any intention of attacking Iran. That division virtually ensures that the crisis will remain at a stalemate, at least for now.