How Iran Is Advancing Its Nuclear Program

While Tehran defies nuclear inspectors, the U.S.-led sanctions effort stalls out at the United Nations.

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This week's United Nations report on Iran's ongoing resistance to explaining its nuclear activities and on its accelerating enrichment of uranium is—for all its downbeat news—not likely to trigger new U.N. sanctions against the Islamic republic.

More likely, it will cause the United States and probably its European allies to look for ways of intensifying existing U.S. and European Union sanctions.

The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that it "has not been able to make any substantive progress" on answering questions about alleged military dimensions of Iran's nuclear drive. And, in a startling disclosure, it said that it had received information about possible "foreign expertise" aiding specialized explosive testing of a sort associated with implosion-type nuclear bombs.

But with the clock running out on his administration, President Bush is facing diplomatic obstacles that make it increasingly unlikely—short of military action—that he will be able to force Iran to curtail its nuclear program before leaving office in January. At the U.N. Security Council in New York, the outlook for getting tougher with Iran is poor. There, a creeping case of "sanctions fatigue" and a continuing, general reluctance by some countries—especially Russia and China—is likely to block new steps to isolate Iran economically and politically.

But now there is an additional factor: Russia's growing estrangement from the West over the latter's stance against last month's Russian invasion of part of Georgia as well as Russia's recognition of the independence of two breakaway Georgian areas, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Many analysts have predicted a withholding of Russian cooperation on new Iran measures as an early consequence of Moscow's tensions with the West.

And, initially at least, there is no indication that Russia, hit by harsh Bush administration criticism, is inclined to jump on board with new U.S.-favored sanctions.

Recognizing the likely stalemate at the Security Council, a senior European diplomat says simply, "I'm not sure we want to go along that path." He added, "I have my doubts." At the same time, EU-led efforts to negotiate with Iran are at virtual standstill, though Iranian officials met with German diplomats on Monday. It appeared to be another in a long series of inconclusive meetings with the Iranians.

European frustration with what diplomats call Iranian intransigence has been building.

Russia, for its part, is continuing with final preparations for a nuclear power complex at Bushehr in Iran, a facility that could begin operating next year. That plant is not legally barred by any U.N. action, but Washington considers it an unhelpful boost to Iran's nuclear infrastructure.

Iran, for its part, says it is pursuing only peaceful nuclear energy and research.

The new report from the Vienna-based IAEA, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, indicates that in the past four months Iran has succeeded in running its fast-spinning uranium-enrichment centrifuges at a greater level of efficiency and is adding ever more of them—6,000 now either operating fully or moving toward it. Iran is also experimenting with more advanced centrifuges. The enrichment complex at Natanz remains under IAEA monitoring.

The Bush administration and Israel contend that Iran's nuclear program is intended to make weapons. Israel has threatened unilateral attacks to knock out elements of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, and President Bush has said that all measures are on the table—although the U.S. military has signaled its resistance to attacking Iran.