Why the U.S. Is Holding Its Fire on Iran

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in front of a picture of the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini, during a public gathering in the Iranian city of Orumiyeh Thursday, August 31, 2006.

Iranian officials may think they have a lot to gain and not much to lose by defying the United Nations Security Council order to halt its uranium enrichment by Thursday, open its nuclear programs to international inspectors and return to the negotiating table.

And they may be right.

By all accounts, it will be weeks, if not a month or more, before U.S. and European officials can even float a sanctions resolution in the Security Council to punish Iran for flouting the deadline for a cessation of Iran's nuclear activities. "The 31st is the deadline," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told TIME on Wednesday. "But of course you now have to go and do consultations. And it may take a little time. But I don't think there's any sense that much has changed in terms of people's view of how we're going to move forward on the Iran nuclear file." French Foreign Minister Phillippe Douste-Blazy struck a similar note, saying, "I deplore Iran's unsatisfactory response to the ambitious negotiation proposals which the Six [the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — plus Germany] made to her. I nonetheless remain convinced that priority must still be given to the path of dialogue."

If Rice and her French counterpart seemed relaxed, even slightly desultory, that's no accident. U.S. and European diplomats have agreed, according to several sources, that the best tactical response is tact. They see Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's accusations, painting the U.S. and its European allies as unfair, hypocritical and biased, as an attempt to peel off important developing nations like Brazil, India and Egypt — all of whom voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency last February. In addition, a statement from Tehran earlier this week proposing "serious negotiations" — albeit without the freeze on enrichment demanded by the Security Council — seemed aimed at convincing Russia, China and key non-aligned nations that Iran is willing to proceed reasonably.

So the diplomatic strategy calls for the West not to rise to the bait but instead to sound even more reasonable and cool-headed than the Iranians. Avoiding bellicose rhetoric and demands for hasty action is viewed as being especially crucial to reassure Russian and Chinese officials that U.N. sanctions against Iran are not a step on the slippery slope toward military action against Iran. A report soon to be issued by the IAEA is said to include the revelation that Iran was enriching uranium gas by processing it through its centrifuge cascade as late as last Thursday. But critics of a get-tough approach are sure to seize on other recent sketchy reports that Iran has encountered some engineering difficulties in running its centrifuges, which are extremely delicate mechanisms.

On Thursday, in the northwestern city of Orumiyeh, Ahmadinejad certainly wasn't moderating his rhetoric. He made a fiery speech before a crowd of thousands, declaring, "The Iranian nation will not accept for one moment any bullying, invasion and violation of its rights." Ahmadinejad asserted that Iran's enemies — presumably the U.S. and its European allies — "claim to be supporting freedom but they support the most tyrannical governments in the world to pursue their own interests. They talk about human rights while maintaining the most notorious prisons. Those powers that do not abide by God and follow evil are the main source of all the current problems of mankind."

For his part, President Bush didn't exactly seem to be playing along with the game plan. Speaking to veterans at the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City, he responded with a sharp condemnation of Tehran's actions; "The world now faces a grave threat from the radical regime in Iran," Bush said. "We know the depth of suffering that Iran's sponsorship of terrorists has brought. And we can imagine how much worse it would be if Iran were allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.

"Today is the deadline for Iran's leaders to reply to the reasonable proposal the international community has made," Bush added. " If Iran's leaders accept this offer and abandon their nuclear weapons ambitions, they can set their country on a better course. Yet, so far, the Iranian regime has responded with further defiance and delay. It is time for Iran to make a choice. We've made our choice: We will continue to work closely with our allies to find a diplomatic solution — but there must be consequences for Iran's defiance, and we must not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon."

Still, for all the bluster, as a practical matter, U.S. and European officials acknowledge, a sanctions resolution probably can't be offered in the Security Council until after a gathering of foreign ministers at the United Nations, scheduled for the week of Sept. 19. Moreover the U.S., U.K. and France are almost certainly going to propose only the mildest sanctions, such as a ban on sales to Iran of dual-use technology that could be used to advance its enrichment program and restrictions on travel of certain Iranian officials.

At least for the present, Russia and China, who wield vetoes in the Security Council, aren't likely to accept broader economic sanctions, especially those that might interfere with Russia's sales to Iran of nuclear power technology or conventional weapons, or China's purchases of oil and gas from Iran. That, however, didn't stop the U.S. from making a new public effort to change their minds. On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton called on Russia and China to go along with sanctions, saying that their foreign ministers had agreed that "if Iran did not fully suspend its uranium enrichment activity they would support coming to the council to seek economic sanctions."

"And I would assume," Bolton went on to say, "that the governments in question would live up to the commitment that their foreign ministers have made."

Rice contends that the Lebanon crisis — and the controversy over the U.S. support of Israel — won't have an effect on America's ability to marshal support in the confrontation with Iran. "I think we are on a very good path to continue the cooperation that we've had stretching all the way back to the London meeting last year," Rice told TIME.

But some Administration critics argue that the U.S. doesn't have the political clout in international circles to sell more sweeping sanctions. "After Lebanon and with the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the U.S. has almost no leverage over Iran," says Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Diplomatically, Tehran knows Beijing and Moscow won't back us militarily. They don't think Bush is in any position to use force, and perhaps worst of all, Iranians now see history as on their side and see America as on the decline. So, there may be mild sanctions like prohibiting sales of materials and know-how to make a bomb and travel restrictions, but that's it. And the U.S. is already maxed out on economic sanctions."

with reporting by Douglas Waller