Why the Sanctions Threat Doesn't Scare Iran

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So, where does North Korea's nuclear test and the resulting sanctions leave the Iran nuclear standoff? Iran gave its own answer to that question Friday, pouring uranium gas into a new cascade of centrifuges to be enriched as nuclear fuel, in defiance of U.N. demands that it suspend such activity. And Tehran's confidence in toughing out any threatened consequences will be reinforced by the divisions evident among the major powers as the U.S. and its European allies push for sanctions against Iran.

Iran may also be encouraged by the limited form of sanctions adopted against North Korea, and the diplomatic battle it took to win agreement on those. Already, there are clear signs of disagreement in the Council over the extent of sanctions to pursue against Iran. China and Russia remain skeptical of their value in resolving the issue, and Moscow has rejected as too harsh a European Union draft resolution — which has also been criticized by the U.S. for being insufficiently harsh.

U.S. officials had hoped the sanctions on North Korea — though directed less at punishing the regime than preventing it from expanding or exporting its nuclear weapons — would send a cautionary message to Iran. But whereas North Korea had actually tested a nuclear weapon, Iran's transgressions have less urgency: according to U.S. estimates, it would take 5 to 10 years between the uranium-enrichment experiments currently under way and a real capacity to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel. Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, which monitors nuclear activities for the U.N., reiterated Monday that unlike North Korea, which had pulled out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran still operates within the terms of the NPT, meaning its nuclear activities are monitored by IAEA inspectors. And "the jury is still out," he said, on whether Iran actually intends to build nuclear weapons once its civilian program puts the means to do so within reach.

ElBaradei also warned that sanctions would be more likely to harden attitudes in Tehran than to change them, urging the West to pursue negotiations that address Iran's security concerns. Not even the Western powers pushing for sanctions believe they will change Iran's attitude. Indeed, U.S. officials stress that their diplomatic plan is to introduce very limited, largely symbolic sanctions at this stage in order to keep Russia and China "on board." Nor is it only commercial self-interest that makes China, Russia and many European countries loath to impose significant sanctions on one of the world's largest oil suppliers. Like ElBaradei, they believe resolving the issue requires cooling the political tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Iran is threatening to up the ante, warning that if the West pursues the path of sanctions, Tehran would consider withdrawing from the NPT, as North Korea did. And its latest round of enrichment experiments is a symbolic act of defiance aimed at demonstrating that it has no intention of buckling to the demand that it cease enrichment activity allowed under the NPT, but which the U.S. and European nations fear will give Iran the option of pursuing a weapons program. Still, Iran is sending mixed messages. Even as it defies U.N. demands, its nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani is dangling the possibility of a suspension of enrichment in pursuit of a deal. Mindful that nuclear policy is determined in part by the ongoing power struggle in Tehran, Western officials fear that failing to impose any penalty for Iran's defiance would vindicate the hard-liners and weaken the pragmatists.

The North Korea example may, in fact, have convinced Iran that China and Russia are unlikely to buckle to U.S. pressure for tough sanctions, and the most hawkish element in Tehran may be encouraged by a perception that North Korea's defiance has forced the U.S. to deal with nuclear arsenal as a fait accompli. Even before Pyongyang's test, Iran's position appeared to be hardening against a compromise with the Western demand for suspending enrichment. Tehran's leaders appear to believe that a deadlock in which they continue enrichment while facing limited sanctions will ultimately force the West to make more concessions to Iran's terms. That confidence is helped, no doubt, by the crisis in Iraq, where the U.S. prospects of stabilizing the situation may depend substantially on Iranian cooperation. In the wake of North Korea, Iran's response to the threat of U.N. sanctions may well be a Farsi equivalent to President Bush's "Bring it on!"