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About Those Nukes, Iran …

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated August 1, 2006

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Iran has until the end of August to halt its enrichment of uranium and all other "research and development" activities or face the threat of sanctions. So declares the UN Security Council in its latest resolution, which passed fourteen to one (Qatar opposed). Should Tehran choose not to comply, under Article 41 of Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, the Security Council can consider multilateral sanctions. Iran indicated it would not respond before August 22 (Bloomberg).

The resolution is legally binding under international law and is the most strongly worded ultimatum to date. An earlier version of the ultimatum called for immediate sanctions but pressure from China and Russia led to more ambiguous language. Both have shied away from imposing punitive measures against Iran, a major energy supplier. Iran has yet to signal whether it will accept a package of energy, commercial, and technological incentives proposed in June by the permanent five members of the Security Council and Germany but maintains it has the right, granted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to peaceful nuclear technology.

The latest round of demands on Iran comes amid an escalating crisis in the Middle East between Hezbollah and Israel. A number of analysts suggest that Iran arranged for Hezbollah to attack Israel, or at least encouraged the incursion, to distract attention from its nuclear activities and assert itself as a regional hegemon. "In Tehran, a dogmatic leadership imbued with messianic aims is both behind Hezbollah's forays and capitalizing on them to establish itself as the vanguard of political Islam," writes CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh in the International Herald Tribune. Hezbollah's incursion into Israel also sends "the signal that any international pressure on [Iran's] nuclear program would meet with strong resistance, says CFR President Richard Haass.

A number of experts are calling for direct negotiations with Iran (with no preconditions attached) to address not only the nuclear issue but also its relationship to terrorist groups like Hezbollah and its interference in Iraq. Haass calls a strong Iran "a fact of life," and says diplomacy should not be seen as a favor to Tehran but as a way to advance U.S. interests in the region.

The Bush administration has not ruled out direct diplomacy per se, reversing decades of official American foreign policy, but has demanded that Iran first suspend its nuclear activities. The White House has also ramped up its public-diplomacy spending seven-fold—outlined in this Backgrounder—to counter anti-Americanism in Iran and reach out more to its opposition groups. Yet some Iranian dissidents, including investigative journalist Akbar Ganji, say U.S. funds could be better spent on Iranian studies programs at American universities rather than on foreign aid or soft-diplomacy initiatives.

The emergence of Iran as a regional powerbroker has broad implications for the Middle East (CSMonitor). Some experts and Arab leaders warn of a so-called "Shiite crescent"—explained in this Backgrounder—that will further tip the balance of power in Tehran's favor. Others say U.S. foreign policy unintentionally abetted its rise by removing regimes formerly hostile to Iran —the Taliban's and Saddam Hussein's. Now, as CFR Senior Adjunct Fellow Vali Nasr recently told Charlie Rose, Tehran "wants essentially to consolidate these gains" (Video clip).

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