But the main outstanding international issue involving Iran is its nuclear program, which is likely to be the focus of Annan's talks in Tehran.
Tehran made it abundantly clear before the UN Security Council's August 31 deadline that it had no intention of complying with the demand for a nuclear suspension. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani responded last week to an international proposal meant to resolve the current crisis with a counterproposal that included a willingness to have further talks but a refusal to suspend enrichment-related activities.
If Iranian officials' remarks were not clear enough, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad inaugurated a heavy-water production facility in Arak on August 26. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) governing board had urged Iran to reconsider building a heavy-water reactor in early February, and a later report from the IAEA called on Iran to halt plans to build a heavy-water reactor. The facility engenders concern because it is easier to extract bomb-grade plutonium from fuel rods used in a heavy-water reactor than from a light-water reactor.
"The Washington Post" reported on August 30 that this involves very small amounts of uranium, however, and the low level of enrichment precludes weaponization.
Iranian officials have consistently denied that their nuclear program has military applications. Larijani said during an August 29 briefing in Tehran that Iran is willing to provide guarantees that its nuclear program is purely civilian in nature. He claimed that these guarantees will demonstrate that no aspect of the program is being diverted for military use. Larijani also complained that some countries simply do not want Iran to have access to nuclear power.
Iranian Atomic Energy Organization official Mohammad Saidi said when the Arak facility was inaugurated that heavy-water reactors are used for electricity production and for agricultural, medical, and other forms of research.
Under these circumstances, it would seem that there is little room left for diplomacy or for Secretary-General Annan's calming influence. But there is disunity in the UN, as Security Council members disagree on how to proceed. Moscow and Beijing are likely to oppose the imposition of sanctions against Iran, in part because they fear the damage to their financial and economic interests. Geopolitically, too, they see themselves as Washington's competitors for global influence.
U.S. officials have suggested the White House wants economic sanctions to be imposed following the expiration of the Security Council deadline. They have also suggested that they might be willing to act unilaterally -- in the form of sanctions -- other if other countries are unwilling to act.
But a well-connected "Washington Times" reporter and analyst, Bill Getz, has claimed there is disunity within the U.S. government, too. He wrote that the State Department, White House, and Pentagon disagree on how much leeway to give Iran.
Gertz wrote that there is pressure on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from within her State Department -- the report names Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns -- to concur with a British, French, and German plan to send EU foreign-policy representative Javier Solana to make another pitch to Iranian officials. "The Washington Times" report also says officials within Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's office and in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney oppose further concessions to Iran.
If this is the case, UN Secretary-General Annan may try to persuade Tehran to go along with Solana's pitch before it is too late.
A control panel at the Bushehr nuclear power plant (Fars)
CASCADES AND CENTRIFUGES: Experts and pundits alike continue to debate the goals and status of Iran's nuclear program. It remains unclear whether the program is, as Tehran insists, a purely peaceful enegy project or, as the United States claims, part of an effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
On June 7, 2006, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with nuclear expert Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden to help sort through some of the technical issues involved. "[Natanz] will be quite a large plant," Kile said. "There will be about 50,000 centrifuges and how much enriched uranium that can produce [is] hard to say because the efficiency of the centrifuges is not really known yet. But it would clearly be enough to be able to produce enough [highly-enriched uranium] for a nuclear weapon in fairly short order, if that's the route that they chose to go...." (more)