With the collapse of nuclear negotiations between Europe and Iran, action against Iran by the U.N. Security Council seems more likely than ever. The council has a menu of punitive options it could seek against Iran, ranging from censure to economic sanctions. But, Iran may be gambling that the Council will not be able to agree on a tough course of action.
Analysts believe that there is in fact a deliberate strategy behind Iran's defiance of world sentiment on its nuclear program. Kenneth Katzman, an Iran analyst at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, says each step Iran takes is designed to gauge world reaction and see just how far it can go.
"I think that they're pursuing what I call a stepwise approach," he said. "They take a step, see what the reaction is. If they don't get sanctioned or they don't get very seriously punished, then they declare the issue closed and move on up the ladder, up the staircase, so to speak."
In the belief that Iran's ultimate goal is a nuclear weapon, the United States has been trying to line up world support to bring the matter before the U.N. Security Council and possibly impose sanctions on Iran.
Gary Sick, a former staffer on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, says the threat of sanctions does not amount to much because there would be no consensus among council members for strong action - and Iran, he says, knows it.
"If you tried to put sanctions on Iran's production and sale of oil, you would raise the price of oil," he said. "Even assuming you could do that, you would take X-number of barrels of oil off the world market and the price would skyrocket. And so it's difficult to see what would be done to Iran other than a sort of generally worded slap on the wrist sort of thing. And then once you've done that, what have you got left? After that, you have military options, and they certainly aren't attractive for the United States or anybody else."
Sick, now teaching international relations at Columbia University, believes there will eventually be a negotiated settlement between the West and Iran on the issue that acknowledges Iran's right to nuclear energy, but under very strict international controls. However, he says tensions are likely to continue for some time.
"But I do think the tensions are going to be very, very high for a period of time, and there is certainly going to be a growing danger of miscalculation, either on the part of Iran, which is pushing the envelope probably further than they should, and with the other countries, who feel that they have to react to that," he said.
But analysts add that there appears to be internal displeasure that recent statements by hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are hardening international sentiment against Iran. The new president, who was elected in June, has called for the destruction of Israel and denied the Holocaust ever occurred.
The Congressional Research Service's Kenneth Katzman says senior Iranian leaders fear the president's statements are undercutting Iran's one-step-at-a-time nuclear strategy.
"I think the Iranian top leadership believes these type of statements are injuring what was a fairly successful strategy of pursuing a nuclear program without really paying much of a penalty," he added. "But now these statements have made it much easier for the U.S. to persuade other nations to try to restrain Iran's nuclear programs."
Gary Sick agrees, saying there are behind-the-scenes efforts to rein President Ahmadinejad in.
"I think there's no question whatsoever that internally, without a lot of fanfare, the leadership of Iran is letting Ahmadinejad know in no uncertain terms that this is very dangerous and it's very harmful to Iran," he said.
Sick points out that President Ahmadinejad was effectively undercut when Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a political rival who lost the presidential race to Ahmadinejad, was appointed head of the Expediency Council, which mediates between the elected parliament and Iran's unelected Islamic clerical leadership. And, Sick notes, President Ahmadinejad has had great difficulty in getting some of his cabinet appointments ratified by the Majlis, or parliament.