BERLIN — As Iran expands its capacity to enrich uranium for what the Bush administration charges will become a nuclear weapons program, the international community is pursuing two diplomatic tracks that may be at cross purposes and lead to military action rather than a peaceful solution.
The division was clear Thursday in the divergent reactions to a United Nations watchdog agency's report on Iran's nuclear program.
Some nations thought the International Atomic Energy Agency's report reflected substantial progress toward clarifying Iran's intentions and formed a possible basis for serious negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
The response from the United States and some of its allies, in contrast, suggested that they believe that the Iranians are still dissembling and that further pressure is needed before there's any point in talking to Tehran.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, said most of the world agrees that Iran shouldn't have nuclear weapons.
"Diplomacy continues to be the only way out of this mess, but it really looks like an impasse right now," he said. "There's a very good argument to be made for the U.S. being involved in a dialogue with Iran. Refusing to talk to Iran only strengthens their animosity and mistrust of the West. But I'm not optimistic."
All sides, however, claim that they're following a diplomatic track. That, however, means different things to different governments.
The United States, Britain and France have taken a hard line, planning a Nov. 19 meeting in London to discuss harsh new economic sanctions on Iran before an IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, Austria, on Nov. 22-23.
They argue that Iran failed to suspend uranium enrichment in defiance of a U.N. Security Council order. In fact, Iran has expanded its enrichment program, reaching a so-called "magic number" of 3,000 working centrifuges, which most experts believe could produce enough highly enriched uranium in one year to make a nuclear weapon.
President Bush, who recently said that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons could lead to "World War III," repeatedly has implied that the United States might use force if it concludes that Iran is about to acquire a nuclear weapon. But he's said that Washington is continuing on the "diplomatic path" — which means seeking tougher sanctions. The U.S. hope is that harsher sanctions will force Iran to come clean about its nuclear activities and negotiate an end to any quest to develop a nuclear weapon.
The other diplomatic path, supported by Russia, China and a group of smaller nations, is to build on the successes that they believe are catalogued in last week's IAEA report. Iran has cooperated more with the IAEA in the past three months than it did in the past two years, diplomats from those countries say.
"We should not impose sanctions that might exacerbate the situation," Chinese Foreign Office spokesman Liu Jianchao said this week after Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.
"China believes Iran has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy and appreciates Iran's reiteration that it does not have the intention to develop nuclear weapons."
China's statement makes further U.N. Security Council sanctions unlikely, reducing the Bush administration's options to additional unilateral sanctions against Iran of the sort that Washington announced several weeks ago. Bush's U.N. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, publicly singled out China for "dragging of feet," suggesting that the two countries are at loggerheads on the issue.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently vowed that his country would complete the construction of Iran's first nuclear power station on time and on Nov. 26 begin preparing to deliver low-enriched nuclear fuel to Iran. The head of Russia's Atomic Energy Agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, recently said that Iran's new nuclear reactor "creates no risks for nuclear weapons proliferation."
This negotiating track puts faith in the IAEA diplomatic process. Imposing new sanctions, Russia, China and others believe, would only strengthen Iran's hard-liners. Iran's new chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said in Vienna on Thursday that the IAEA's report showed Iran had come clean and makes "certain measures that were taken, such as referring Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council, are no longer valid."
The IAEA report does clear up many of the issues that initially led to the international mistrust that prompted the first round of U.N. sanctions and led to the Security Council's order to Iran to cease enrichment. Among the issues was how Iran acquired centrifuge technology from a supply network set up by A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani scientist, and carried on its research program.
Enriched uranium is used for research and energy generation, as well as for weapons. Weapons grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent U-235, while electric power plants are fueled by uranium enriched to less than 5 percent. The enrichment equipment and the process to create both are similar. As one nuclear inspector summed up: "You just spin it longer to highly enrich."
Still, while Iran has added centrifuges, they're under IAEA surveillance, which makes it impossible for Iran to produce highly enriched uranium in those machines without detection.
"Iran has provided sufficient access . . . ," wrote IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei in the report.
But the report also said that Iran needs to volunteer information on its program and not wait for the IAEA to demand it.
"Iran needs to continue to build confidence about the scope and nature of its present program," the report states. "Confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program requires that the Agency be able to provide assurances not only regarding declared nuclear material, but, equally importantly, regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran."
Oliver Thraenert, an expert on Iran's nuclear program at Berlin's Institute for International and Security Affairs, said there's reason for caution in dealing with Iran. While he said that the IAEA report showed progress, which continues — Iran has pledged to answer all outstanding questions within two months — the fact remains that the Islamic nation has defied the demands of the Security Council to halt all enrichment.
"The hard-liners in Iran are showing signs of being isolated in the government, so this is a time for pressure to create results," he said.
But, he argued, as soon as there are signs of results in suspending enrichment, "then the U.S. must be at the negotiating table, to begin to firm up the incentives to Iran for complying and to give Iran a way to save face in this crisis."
Now the question is: Who'll blink first, Washington or Tehran?
The U.S. has offered to sit down with Iran, but only after it stops enriching uranium. Iranian officials have said they won't stop enriching uranium under the threat of tougher sanctions. Iran had been voluntarily abiding by the IAEA's additional protocol — which gives nuclear inspectors far greater freedom to inspect a nuclear program than normal rules do — until the U.S. began pushing for more sanctions in the U.N. Security Council in early 2006.
From that time until last August, when the IAEA developed its plan for an intensive investigation of Iran's secret program, relations deteriorated. ElBaradei continues to urge Iran to again adopt the additional protocol.
At least some scholars — and some presidential candidates, including Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. — think that face-to-face talks will resolve the crisis.
The Bush administration is proceeding on a different track, pushing for tighter sanctions, threatening military action and pressing to deploy a missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland to knock Iranian nuclear missiles from the sky before they reach Western Europe.
Rosemary Hollis, of the London research center Chatham House, said that while the support for military intervention appears to be increasing — an October Zogby poll found that 52 percent of U.S. voters would support a military strike to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon — the consequences would be serious.
To be effective, a military strike would have to destroy not only Iran's scattered and deeply buried nuclear facilities, but also its missiles, naval bases, airfields and the other facilities it could use to counterattack against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, oil facilities and tankers in the Persian Gulf, or Israel. Even then, Iran likely would bide its time and strike back through terrorist allies, such as Hezbollah.
"We'd be looking at a destabilized Middle East, from Lebanon through, and right now including, Pakistan," she said. "No one who has ever done an assessment believes there's any sense in carrying out a threat of military action against Iran, and especially not at a time when Iraq and Afghanistan are already chaos."
But with major powers openly disagreeing, it's not clear how either the U.N. or the United States will be able to advance their very different brands of diplomacy.