Iranian Nuclear Pledges Complicate President Bush's U.N. Strategy

Tehran's signs of cooperation with nuclear inspectors set back U.S. sanctions effort.

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks with journalists during a news conference in Tehran, Iran. He denied that the country had stalled its nuclear program, which is claimed to be for energy only.

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As diplomats prepare for meetings at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna next week, new pledges by Iran to answer unresolved questions about its once clandestine nuclear program are complicating the Bush administration's strategy of ratcheting up pressure on Tehran.

U.S. diplomats have seized on the confirmation provided by an IAEA report finalized last week that Iran is continuing to enrich uranium and to build what would be a plutonium-making heavy-water reactor—in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions, as well as those of the IAEA's own board. However, the same report declared that Iran had made "a significant step forward" by agreeing to a work plan for addressing remaining issues about its nuclear facilities and capabilities. IAEA officials suggest that if Iran carries out its promises, outstanding questions could be answered by the end of this year.

Iran welcomed the report, contending that it showed U.S. accusations that it is pursuing nuclear weapons were groundless.

That reaction was perhaps predictable. More worrying for the administration, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, in interviews with the New York Times and the German weekly Der Spiegel, hailed the Iranian agreement as unprecedented and worthy of giving Iran the limited time it prescribes to show its peaceful intentions. He sounded a loud note of skepticism about President Bush's current approach: gathering support for a third, tougher round of U.N. sanctions.

Not surprisingly, administration officials poured doubt on the newly proffered cooperation from Tehran. "For the most part, Iran has made only promises," said Gregory Schulte, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA. In Washington, officials insisted the centerpiece of the report was that it verified that Iran's defiance was continuing.

But the administration has good reason to be concerned. With many countries questioning the quality of U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, the administration has used the periodic IAEA reports on Iran as key sources of documentation for raising global concern about Iranian nuclear intentions.

And with Russia and China still devoted skeptics of employing sanctions against Iran, the report, coupled with ElBaradei's pleas for patience, could well blunt any rapid moves at the Security Council for further sanctions.

It isn't the first time the Bush administration has fumed over ElBaradei's actions. Before the Iraq war, he concluded that he had no evidence to back the U.S. claim that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. (ElBaradei's conclusion was subsequently borne out by postwar investigation.) The administration initially opposed his renomination as director general of the IAEA, then relented.

Opponents of a quick resort to more penalties against Iran are also likely to focus on the report's finding that the rate at which Iran is adding cascades of centrifuges—the linked machines that concentrate uranium either to the lower levels needed for nuclear power plants or to higher levels for bombs—has slowed in recent months. With some 2,000 centrifuges running as of August 19, the number recently in operation has failed to meet the expectations of western analysts.

The slower rate of growth, according to a report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, may reflect problems in mastering the task of running cascades in parallel. But Iran may also be playing politics, probing whether particular gestures can ease tensions that have been building up over its program.

Some western diplomats grudgingly agree with the judgment of ISIS: "Iran's leadership may have decided to slow work to overcome technical problems in order to forestall negative reactions that would lend support for further sanctions by the U.N. Security Council, Europe, or Japan."

From the Bush administration's standpoint, next week's discussions in Vienna are not likely to resolve much of anything.