The Iranian government is showing no signs of suspending its nuclear programs—the central demand of a group of six key countries before full-fledged negotiations with the Islamic republic can begin. Not surprisingly, then, the frustration building in Washington and other capitals with the impasse triggered a joint pledge Tuesday by President Bush and European Union leaders to intensify sanctions on Iran.
"A group of countries can send a clear message to the Iranians," Bush said at an EU-U.S. summit in Slovenia. "We're going to continue to isolate you, we'll continue to work on sanctions, we'll find new sanctions if need be—if you continue to deny the just demands of a free world, which is to give up your enrichment program."
The vow of further sanctions ordered up by individual governments—or perhaps across the 27-nation EU—may be the only realistic step left to escalate pressure on Iran. According to a senior European diplomat, the United Nations Security Council is unlikely to take further action to pressure Iran, at least for now. "It will be difficult unless something spectacular happened in Iran," he says.
The official adds that the "Group of Six"—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China—is hoping to send a delegation of at least some foreign ministry political directors along with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana to present the group's latest negotiating position—expected to be modestly sweetened from previous ones—directly to officials in Tehran. "It has been difficult to arrange," said the official.
The trip, should it ever happen, could also offer an opportunity "to get our message through to public opinion in Iran," the diplomat says. The group would most likely seek access to Iranian television and think tanks. The group's bottom line on talks, adds the official, remains that "they [the Iranians] must for the time being suspend their nuclear program.... We have been unable to get over that hurdle."
The six countries have been searching for ways to entice at least some factions within the Iranian government to negotiate by showing more flexibility though without dropping the demand for a suspension of nuclear work. The European diplomat cited the possibility of a "prediscussion" with Iranian officials before nuclear work would be frozen and full-on talks over political and security issues launched. Even that gesture, though, has not drawn Tehran into any real movement.
With little evident progress on the diplomatic front, Israel and Iran have been exchanging threats of military strikes and counterstrikes.
Iran's defense minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, warned of a "painful response" if Israel attacks Iran.
His remarks, reported by the official IRNA news agency, followed a statement last Friday by Israeli cabinet member Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief and defense minister, that Israel will attack Iran if it doesn't abandon its nuclear program. Mofaz was quoted in Friday's Yediot Aharonot as saying that "the window of opportunity has closed. The sanctions are not effective. There will be no choice but to attack Iran to stop its nuclear program."
Mofaz has been a key official in U.S.-Israeli talks about the Iran nuclear problem, so his remarks seemed to carry some authority.
Mofaz's comments stirred political debate in Israel, where some suggested his public hard line amounted to positioning himself as a possible candidate to replace Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is caught up in a corruption scandal that might force him from office.
Olmert met with Bush last week in Washington for talks that reportedly focused on next moves to pressure Iran to halt its uranium enrichment, which both Israel and the Bush administration view as part of an effort by Tehran to develop nuclear weapons.
Taking up Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's remarks that "he'd like to destroy you," Bush on Tuesday said that "if you were living in Israel, you'd be a little nervous, too."
Iran asserts its nuclear program is for the peaceful use of nuclear energy to produce electricity. The most recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate said that Iran had stopped its development of a nuclear device in 2003 but has continued other technological efforts useful for production of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles that could deliver them.