Iran's leaders have displayed an almost insouciant calm in the face of U.S. efforts to isolate and pressure them. They responded to the U.S.-backed incentive package which Washington cast as a final, take-it-or-leave-it offer more than six weeks after the deadline preferred by Washington, and then only to send it back with a "can do better" grade and a 21-page counterproposal. But Iran's defiance may be based on a sound diplomatic calculation. The international community demands that Iran go the extra mile to satisfy concerns over its atomic energy program, but it also insists that the issue be resolved via diplomacy rather than confrontation. For reasons ranging from the price of oil to the turmoil in neighboring Iraq, much of the world outside of the U.S. fears that a confrontation between America and Iran would have disastrous consequences.
Aware of the danger of isolating itself, the U.S. insists that it, too, favors, a diplomatic solution. But Washington's version of a "diplomatic solution" certainly includes sanctions to bring Iran to heel, while for many of Washington's European allies, and for such key Security Council powers as Russia and China, sanctions represent a slippery slide to confrontation. Iran is unlikely to change its position in response to the limited sanctions that will probably be adopted, and it knows that the international community is unlikely to risk the impact on world oil prices of cutting off Iran's crude exports. Many diplomats fear that moves to isolate Iran will harden the position of its regime, and make military confrontation more likely.
Mindful of the need to play to the international consensus, Iran has not rejected suspending uranium enrichment on principle. But any suspension of enrichment, the Iranians say, must be an outcome of negotiations rather than a precondition for talking, as the current offer requires. For Tehran, it's a question of leverage. Iran voluntarily suspended enrichment during three years of negotiations with the European Union that began in 2002, and its leaders believe they received nothing as a result. This time, analysts say, the regime wants to hold onto its cards and press for a more favorable deal.
Iran's top priority in any negotiated solution will be to secure cast-iron security guarantees that would require the U.S. taking "regime change" off the table. That's an issue on which the Bush Administration remains divided. Under pressure from European allies, Washington eventually agreed last spring to join talks with Iran if it first halted uranium enrichment. That shift angered hawks in and around the Administration. Yet it was substantially less than the Europeans had hoped for. They have long argued that a diplomatic solution will require direct talks between the U.S. and Tehran on all issues that jeopardize the peace. The premise of much of the thinking in Europe is that global security will be better served by integrating Iran into the international community, rather than isolating it.
So, despite Iran's defiance of the Security Council's deadline, the Europeans, Russia and China want to pursue further talks with Tehran in search of an acceptable formula for suspending enrichment. To that end, E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana is to meet with Iran's nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, in Paris on Saturday. But the fact that the demand for an unconditional suspension of uranium enrichment is now set in stone by a Security Council resolution limits their room to maneuver.
Still, while the U.S. in the coming weeks will remind the international community of its commitment to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Tehran will be working just as hard to tempt the Security Council players to restrain Washington by offering a diplomatic path that averts confrontation.