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Bush faces an uphill battle to impose meaningful sanctions on Iran

WASHINGTON—With Iran expected to ignore a U.N. deadline Thursday to halt uranium-enrichment experiments, the Bush administration faces an uphill battle to convince other world powers to impose significant costs on Tehran.

The U.S. drive to punish Tehran faces strong opposition from U.N. Security Council member Russia, a major supplier of arms and nuclear technology to Iran, and has only the lukewarm enthusiasm of France and Germany.

Moreover, Washington's sway has dwindled as a result of its predicament in Iraq and its backing of Israel's attempt to wipe out Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon, analysts and some U.S. officials said.

Under a Security Council resolution that passed in late July, Iran has until Thursday to stop enriching uranium, which could be used for nuclear weapons, and to end related activities or face unspecified economic sanctions.

Iran says its nuclear research is aimed at producing civilian nuclear power, not bombs.

Its leaders appear confident that they can avoid paying for their defiance of the U.N. demand.

"Sanctions cannot dissuade the Iranian nation from achieving our lofty goals of progress," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying Wednesday by Iran's state-run television. He urged European countries not to support the U.S. drive for sanctions.

Iran has continued enriching uranium this week, according to officials in Washington and at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria. Iran has taken other potentially provocative steps, including temporarily restricting IAEA inspectors' access to an underground nuclear site under construction.

The IAEA is expected to formally report Thursday that Iran hasn't complied with the deadline. The agency has said that Iran hasn't fully cooperated with its inspectors, making it impossible for it to determine whether the country's nuclear program is peaceful.

Tehran isn't yet thought to have the technological know-how to enrich uranium in large amounts or to make it pure enough for a nuclear device.

Russia and China agreed in July to support sanctions on Iran if it refused to temporarily suspend its suspected nuclear-weapons work as a condition for talks on economic and security incentives.

Iran offered its formal response last week, saying it was open to negotiations on a range of issues but wouldn't suspend uranium enrichment first.

The U.S. drive for sanctions will begin early next week, when Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, the State Department's point man on Iran, meets his counterparts in Europe to discuss strategy.

The Security Council "should send a substantial signal to the Iranian regime that this is serious business," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday.

He said Washington would like to act quickly on a sanctions resolution, but he acknowledged that there will be "hard-fought, tough diplomacy" that could take some time.

Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, Emyr Jones-Parry, said Tuesday that the Security Council wouldn't take up the issue until mid-September.

Russia—along with China, which increasingly relies on Iran for its energy needs—remains leery of a confrontation with Iran, despite the July agreement.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who's also the deputy prime minister, said last week that "speculations about sanctions are premature and inexpedient, to say the least."

Russian President Vladimir Putin "has little interest or intention of voting" for significant sanctions on Iran, said proliferation expert George Perkovich, the vice president of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan research organization.

The Russians won't agree to an embargo of arms supplies to Iran because Russia is Iran's main arms supplier, Perkovich said. Nor will Moscow, which is helping Iran build a nuclear power plant, agree to cut off nuclear technology, he said.

The most it might agree to are minor measures such as a ban on travel by some Iranian government officials, Perkovich predicted.

John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said recently that if the Security Council couldn't agree on sanctions, the United States might work independently with like-minded countries to punish Iran.

Already talking publicly about such a strategy "seems to me is a sign of weakness," Perkovich said.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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