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Atomic Inspectors’ Report on Iran Lays Groundwork for United Action

September 1, 2006
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The final, absolute, no-question deadline passed, Iran still won’t give in and the world is finally ready to well, wait and see. The International Atomic Energy Agency report, delivered Thursday to the U.N. Security Council, erases any last vestige of doubt that Iran might accede to international demands to stop enriching uranium, diplomats said.

“The IAEA is still unable to confirm the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” said John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Now, in the language of the IAEA and the international system, that’s a red flag. That says that the Iranian program contains much that should be worried about here in New York, and that I think underlies our concern that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.”

The report was hardly unexpected. Iran’s self-set deadline to respond to the sanctions or assistance offer from the international community had been Aug. 22, and its answer, delivered that day to diplomats, was to call for more negotiations.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the process was still very much under way, deadlines or no.

“This has a long way to play out,” he said. “The U.S. will go to the Security Council and see what progress it can get. It will threaten the Security Council, in subtle or blunt ways: ‘If you don’t act, we will.’ “

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed as late as Thursday morning — just hours before the IAEA report was published — that enriching uranium was Iran’s “right.” Iranian officials later called the IAEA report “baseless.”

The Aug. 22 deadline came after two other deadlines set by the United States passed in July. A host of earlier ultimatums has come and gone since 2003, when the international community first tried to corner Iran on the issue.

Iran insists its program is peaceful, but IAEA inspectors say that’s doubtful, and that the nature of the uranium enrichment suggests a weapons program.

So what happens now?

Bolton made clear that he expects the next step to be sanctions; after all, that was what the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council, plus Germany, threatened earlier this year in making Iran the offer first outlined by Britain, France and Germany, known as the “E.U.-3.”

Russia and China committed to seeking sanctions when the group met about two months ago, Bolton said.

Their statement was clear “that if Iran continued to reject the very generous offer that the E.U.-3 were making on behalf of the six countries and if Iran failed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, now as called for both by the International Atomic Energy Agency and by the Security Council, then the Perm-5 plus Germany would come to the Security Council and seek sanctions,” he said.

Well, maybe — Russian and Chinese diplomats were notably silent after the IAEA report was delivered. Even the European nations, which have been firmer in threatening sanctions, were hanging back until they heard more from the Iranians.

Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, was set to discuss next steps next week with Ali Larijani, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. Iranian diplomats were readying for a diplomatic blitz to Russia, China and European capitals next week.

Shi’ite Iran also may try to use its considerable conventional force to cow Sunni Arab neighbors into blocking international sanctions, according to a report released this month by the London-based Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

“The Sunni Arab states of Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf are wary of Iran yet feel compelled by its strength to maintain largely cordial relations while Iran embarrasses their Western-leaning governments through its stance against the U.S.,” said the report on Iran’s burgeoning regional influence.

The lack of international backing is unlikely to dampen determination in Washington to isolate Iran. The top agenda item for U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) for the last congressional session in September, before mid-term elections, is final passage of her Iran Freedom Act, which has garnered overwhelming support in the House of Representatives.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and an array of other Jewish groups are committed to the act’s passage. The legislation would considerably toughen existing U.S. sanctions against Iran, extending them to third parties that deal with Iran, a measure that would increase Iran’s isolation even without formal support from China, Russia and the Europeans.

Ultimately, the world might have to learn to live with a nuclear Iran, said Shlomo Aronson, a political science professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. That might be tolerable for a while, as long as Iran maintains the opacity it has cultivated until now, he said.

“They will not threaten the use of a nuclear weapon that they deny exists,” he said.

The problem with that scenario, Alterman said, is that even the tacit threat of a nuclear Iran poses dangers.

“A nuclear Iran is not a more confident, self-contained Iran,” Alterman said. “It’s an Iran that is likelier to seek a regional war at the expense of the United States and at the expense of Israeli security. An Iran throwing its weight around is not going to be on the side of the angels.”

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