Iran continues its defiance of the United Nations ahead of the August 31 deadline to halt its nuclear activities (Reuters). To reinforce its tough stance on the nuclear front, Iran over the weekend opened a new heavy-water plant, used to produce a coolant for a reactor capable of creating a plutonium byproduct that could be used in nuclear warheads (BBC). Tehran also stepped up its series of war-games exercises by launching a submarine-based long-range missile.
Meanwhile, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany are mulling possible next steps in response to Iran's reply, which the U.S. State Department says "falls short of the conditions set by the Security Council." U.S. officials are pressing their counterparts in China and Russia to support strict economic and political sanctions against Tehran. Some experts suspect Iran is using the negotiations as a stalling tactic to observe what positions Russia and China take. "They are essentially targeting Russia and China with [their] message, trying to split the Security Council plus Germany in half," says CFR Fellow Michael A. Levi, in an interview with CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman.
George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment, in an interview with Gwertzman, presents a realist approach to resolving the crisis: Deal with the Iranians directly and "don’t focus so much on the [internal] character of the regime there." Michael Meyer of Newsweek International raises the prospects for a "Nixon moment," referring to President Nixon's decision to open up a dialogue with Communist China in the 1970s. Getting Russia onboard should be the administration's paramount concern, Perkovich goes on to argue, not democracy-promotion in the region or regime-change in Iran. "If they think what you are trying to do in Iran is to exercise a strategy that they find threatening to themselves, why would they help?" he asks.
If the August 31 deadline expires with no agreement, the stage will be set for some form of stakes-raising ultimatum. The United States favors a new UN resolution with Chapter Seven powers, which would enable the Security Council to impose sanctions or—though this is unlikely—employ military force, should Tehran not suspend its nuclear activities. But China and Russia, both of which have strong trade ties with Iran, have indicated they do not support punitive measures. Nor will sanctions necessarily deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear program, experts say. "The U.S. government must dig into its diplomatic toolbox and offer—in conjunction with China, Russia, and the EU-3—contingent security guarantees to Tehran," writes Scott D. Sagan in the latest Foreign Affairs. And, as the lesson of North Korea's 1994 Agreed Framework shows, it should offer them sooner rather than later. Whatever "diplomatic package" the Security Council offers Iran should offer security and economic incentives but be backed up with the threat of military force, argues CFR President Richard N. Haass.
In the event of tough UN action, Tehran has a wide range of options, says Bill Samii of RFE/RL. One possibility is Iran, which accounts for 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, could restrict oil experts and further cripple energy markets. Another option is Iran could pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). There is also the outside chance Tehran might use military force somewhere else in the region, a threat highlighted by recent tests of its naval forces. Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, says any UN attempt to punish Iran would result in the ejection of international inspectors from the country. A week ago, the chief International Atomic Energy Agency inspector was denied access to Iran's underground nuclear facility at Natanz (AP), an apparent violation of the NPT, UN officials say.
Iran, emboldened by escalating oil prices, is definitely negotiating from a position of strength. Tehran's position is seen as further buttressed by the recent success of Hezbollah, a client of Iran's, at repelling cross-border attacks by Israel. That forced a stalemate of sorts that many in the Middle East interpret as a victory for Hezbollah and a loss for Israel and the United States. "Washington's policies have succeed[ed] in putting a truculent Iran in command of the Islamic street," write CFR Senior Fellows Ray Takeyh and Charles Kupchan in the International Herald Tribune.