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U.S.: Iran Policy Enters Delicate Phase As Next IAEA Meeting Looms

(CTK) The board of governors of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will meet in Vienna on 6 March and could decide whether to report Iran to the Security Council for possible sanctions for resuming its suspected nuclear-weapons program. Great Britain, France and Germany, known as the EU-3, have been negotiating with Iran for more than a year in hopes of persuading it to end the program. The United States, meanwhile, is playing a secondary role in the talks, but at the same time, U.S. President George W. Bush says he has not ruled out the possible use of military force to confront Iran's suspected nuclear ambitions.

WASHINGTON, 1 March 2006 (RFE/RL) -- To Joseph Cirincione, there is, or at least should be, a single path in dealing with Iran's nuclear program: go through the United Nations.

It appears that the EU-3 and the United States have begun following that path, according to Cirincione, the director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy-research center.

Cirincione tells RFE/RL that there are three steps in how the UN may act. The first is to wait at least a month after the IAEA's 4 February decision before the Security Council takes any action at all. Cirincione says he doesn't expect such action before mid-March.

At this point, Cirincione says, the Security Council probably will simply repeat the IAEA's statement that Iran should end all uranium enrichment. He says if Iran ignores that, the pressure on Tehran will increase.

Finally, Cirincione says, the council might impose what he called "targeted sanctions aimed at the Iranian leadership." He says they would include banning some travel and restricting access to some international bank accounts.

Sanctions A Difficult Step

But Cirincione says imposing even such mild sanctions would have to be considered very carefully because of the close political and economic ties that Iran has with Russia and China, two Security Council members with veto power over any council resolution:

"That step is going to be the most controversial," Cirincione says. "That's why everybody [the United States and the EU-3] wants to proceed slowly to make sure that the Security Council stays united on this, and that Russia and China are comfortable with each step being taken."

One possibility that Cirincione rejects is military action, despite the U.S. insistence that such an option remains viable.

"There is no good military option here. While it's possible to just blow up something in Iran, this would have almost no support by [from] any other country in the world with the possible exception of Israel, and would provoke a huge backlash in the Muslim world, rally the Iranian public around what is otherwise an unpopular government, and jeopardize the already fragile U.S. position in Iraq," Cirincione says. "The U.S. really has no choice but to go with the kind of patient diplomacy that they've sketched out over the past few months and that has a chance of working."

'Regime Change' Still An Option?

But another weapons expert disagrees. David Albright -- who served as a weapons inspector in Iraq during the 1990s and now is the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, another Washington think tank -- tells RFE/RL that he believes the United States is seriously considering military action, even though he agrees with Cirincione that any attack on Iran would be politically and diplomatically disastrous for the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, Albright says, the EU-3 don't want that kind of help from the United States, but instead something more positive. He says the Europeans believe a military strike would only be a replay of the Iraq war.

"There's a general expectation that's growing [among the EU-3 governments] that the U.S. needs to put on the table what it is Iran needs to do so that the military option is not on the table," Albright says. "And some in the administration say, 'No, no, the military option's on the table until this regime disappears, and we have democracy.' Which is essentially what they did in Iraq. [The Americans argued that] whatever happened didn't matter because Saddam [Hussein] was still in power."

Albright contrasts the negotiations with Iran with the six-party talks on North Korea's suspected nuclear-weapons program, which he says have yielded some progress. Besides the two Koreas, these talks include China, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

Albright points out that in the Korea negotiations, the Bush administration had a clear policy strategy. With Iran, however, he says, it appears Washington has no real strategy yet, and that could lead to the exact opposite of what the United States and the EU-3 want.

"If you're going into a crisis, I mean, there are key questions, [such as] under what conditions would Iran be offered a security guarantee? Bush offered it to North Korea, under certain conditions. What are they for Iran, except 'regime change'? But that's not a policy. Iran looks at that and says, 'Boy, we'd better get nuclear weapons,'" Albright says.

There has been some question about how the IAEA may present its case against Iran to the United Nations. On 4 February the agency chose to "report" Iran to the Security Council. Some have suggested it may strengthen the complaint by "referring" Iran to the council.

Both Cirincione and Albright say there is no practical difference between the two terms. But Albright notes that the Russian government -- which recently has been negotiating a possible uranium-enrichment deal with Tehran -- seems to see a distinction.

Albright says the Russians may see a "referral" as having more legal weight than mere "reporting." He says "referral" might be perceived as giving the Security Council more authority to take harsher measures against Iran, including authorizing military action. But he says such UN authorization is highly unlikely under the current circumstances.

Both Albright and Cirincione agree that whatever the fine distinctions, if the IAEA were to take action, it would be to "report" Iran to the Security Council, thus forestalling complaints from Russia.

Iran's Nuclear Program

Iran's Nuclear Program

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.