WASHINGTON — The dispute over Iran's nuclear program is far from over, despite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's assertion before the U.N. General Assembly that his government considers the issue "closed."
"The case is not closed," retorted Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns on Wednesday, a day after Ahmadinejad's remarks. "He is completely mistaken, and the international community is not going to allow him to forget about the fact that his country is operating against the wishes of the (U.N.) Security Council."
Iran has defied demands that it suspend the enrichment of uranium, a process that can produce low-enriched uranium for electrical production or highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, depending on its duration.
The Bush administration, backed by France and Britain, is campaigning for tighter U.N. sanctions against Iran. Iran, however, reached an agreement with the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency last month to reveal the full extent of its long-secret program after years of non-cooperation — a step that might avert further U.N. sanctions.
President Bush has refused to rule out using military force against Iranian nuclear facilities, and his charges that Iran is training and arming Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq have fueled concerns that his administration has begun making a case for attacking the Islamic republic. Iran denies the allegations.
The Democratic-controlled Senate on Wednesday gave symbolic support to the Bush administration by voting 76-22 for a nonbinding resolution endorsing the use of military force and other "instruments" of U.S. power in Iraq to halt the "violent activities and destabilizing influence" of Iran and "its proxies." The resolution also calls on the administration to declare Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization.
Under the Aug. 21 agreement with the IAEA, Iranian officials are to answer a series of outstanding questions about unexplained activities at a uranium mine, work on advanced centrifuges — the machines used to enrich uranium — and a document on the casting of uranium metal spheres, which can only be used in nuclear weapons.
U.S. and European officials have criticized the IAEA deal, saying it gives Iran time to complete the installation of 3,000 centrifuges in an industrial scale facility in Natanz. They could produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb a year.
Failure by Iran to answer all of the IAEA questions would buttress U.S. charges that Iran is concealing a nuclear weapons development effort and inject new life into the Bush administration's drive for tighter U.N. economic sanctions, or, failing that, for military action.
"The betting in Washington . . . is that the Iranians cannot afford to come clean," said Gary Samore, a National Security Council staffer who dealt with non-proliferation in the Clinton administration. He predicted that Iran "won't be willing to provide the kind of transparency required to answer those questions."
But if Iran cooperates with the IAEA, it would doom new U.N. sanctions and strengthen Tehran's contention that it has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the international system to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
Iran has warned that it will repudiate its agreement with the IAEA if new sanctions are imposed.
U.S. and European officials say they're concerned that Iran will cooperate just enough to win a clean bill of health while leaving key questions about its program unanswered, and its defiance of the Security Council would go unpunished.
In anticipation of such a development, the United States, Britain and France are discussing the possibility of European governments imposing their own "sanctions of the willing" if the United Nations effort founders.
Administration hardliners led by Vice President Dick Cheney, however, insist that only military action or the Islamic regime's ouster can guarantee that Iran doesn't build nuclear bombs.
"I think the sanctions route is out of time," said John Bolton, a Cheney ally who resigned in December as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "I think you have to look at regime change or the use of force, neither of which are attractive options."
Iran insists that its program, which it hid from U.N. inspectors for 18 years, is strictly for electricity production. U.S. and European officials suspect that the oil-rich nation is secretly developing nuclear weapons with technology and know-how it obtained from a Pakistani-led international smuggling ring.
France and Britain are supporting the U.S. drive for a third round of U.N. sanctions against Iran. Current U.N. measures include the freezing of assets and travel bans on Iranian officials involved in the country's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Russia and China, which have extensive financial stakes in Iran, are expected to oppose additional measures in talks on the issue with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her British, French and German counterparts in New York on Friday.
Germany, Iran's largest European trading partner, is also reluctant to impose new sanctions, arguing that major German banks have begun cutting off business with Tehran, said U.S. and European officials, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Germany, they said, along with Russia and China, is expected to urge on Friday that Iran be given until December to reveal the extent of its nuclear program to the IAEA.