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West Ponders Next Step in Nuclear Dispute with Iran

  • Gary Thomas

The nations that offered incentives to Iran to get it to halt nuclear enrichment activity are studying Iran's response and pondering what to do next. While details of the response have not been made public, Iran said it was ready for "serious negotiations" on its nuclear program. The United States says it will continue its push for U.N.-backed economic sanctions against Iran if it refuses to halt uranium enrichment. There are sharp differences at the Security Council on the strength of proposed sanctions, and Iran seeks to exploit them.

One day after Iran delivered its response to the incentive package, a leading British research institute came out with a report saying that Iran's influence in the Middle East has actually been enhanced by the U.S.-led "war on terror." The Royal Institute for International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the recent conflict in Lebanon have put Iran in what it calls "a position of considerable strength."

Analysts say Iran is trying to use that newfound strength to exploit differences in the so-called "Five-Plus-One," the grouping of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany that seeks to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Details of Iran's response have not been released. But Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani says Iran is ready for what he termed "serious negotiations." Rosemary Hollis, director of research at Chatham House, says that approach may find favor in Europe, where there is less appetite to rush forward with sanctions, but not in Washington.

"If the Iranians want to play this out, and it looks as if they want to get some more mileage out of this initial taste of an engagement, then it could play out for a very long time," she said. "The issue becomes, really, whether Washington has the patience or the interest for playing out a very long game, which may not deliver, which may simply buy the Iranians time to do what they want to do anyway."

Iran insists it is only seeking peaceful nuclear energy, but the West says Iran's true ambition is to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. The "Five-Plus-One" group offered Iran a package of incentives to get Iran to halt nuclear work, but demanded Iran halt uranium enrichment. France insisted Wednesday that enrichment suspension remains a precondition for any talks.

If, as Iranian statements indicate, Iran rejects the demand to suspend uranium enrichment, then the United States will push for tough economic sanctions against Iran. But, Hollis says, the United States is unlikely get any sanctions with real teeth, particularly because of opposition from Russia and China.

"Punitive economic sanctions are unlikely to be a recourse for the U.N. Security Council simply because nobody fancies the idea of an energy market which is already experiencing high energy prices to be tightened even further," she said. "And nobody relishes the idea of an all-out confrontation with Iran on this issue. So what may well end up happening is a fudge which pleases no one."

Mark Fitzgerald, a nuclear proliferation experts at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says Iran's position as a leading oil producer is not the only reason that tough sanctions will not be passed by the Security Council.

"Oil certainly is a trump card, one of its trump cards. Another is its strategic position in Central Asia, which is very important to Russia," he said. "Russia and China both have commercial interests in Iran, and for Russia, these security interests. Iran's potential to create havoc on Russia's southern front with these Islamic fundamentalist groups there make Iran an important player for Russia that they do not want to push toward a conflict situation."

Under the U.N. Security Council resolution, Iran still has until August 31 to suspend enrichment.

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