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. Iran still an enigma for US
WASHINGTON (AFP) Nov 30, 2004
The United States, after the agreement on Iran's nuclear program, remains deeply distrusting of Tehran's promises and has mixed feelings about European efforts at conciliation.

The fear that tensions with the Islamic republic could spill over into neighboring Iraq complicates matters, at a moment when Washington wants at all costs to stabilize Iraq.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's decision Monday to accept Iraq's suspension of uranium enrichment and not to take the matter before the UN Security Council was coolly received in Washington.

"Iran has failed to comply with its commitments many times over the course of the past year and a half, and for this agreement to succeed, the Europeans, the IAEA and the IAEA board of governors, as well as all members of the international community, will need to remain vigilant," White House spokesman Scott McClellan warned.

Washington has said repeatedly that it would do whatever was necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, a possibility that is unacceptable for President George W. Bush, who has named Iran as part of an "axis of evil."

Behind such tough talk, however, the US strategy looks less clear and the choices remained difficult as Bush geared up for his second term, according to experts and diplomats in Washington.

If the case goes before the Security Council, where the memory of discord over Iraq weighs heavily, Washington is far from the votes it needs for potential sanctions.

The option of military strikes on suspected nuclear sites inside Iran, or a strategy of so-called regime change, have their fans among the US neoconservatives, according to press reports.

The potential consequences of such a policy toward a country with three times the area and population as Iraq would raise strong objections within the US military hierarchy.

"They know that they don't like the Iranian government, they know that they would like to see it replaced, but they don't have an effective strategy to make that happen, said Jon Wolfsthal, a specialist on non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Iraq comes into the equation at a time when US forces are engaged in a perilous operation to take control of the country's principal towns by routing rebels in time for elections slated for the end of January.

"There is the concern that because the US is so bogged down in Iraq, and because Iran has such a strong ability to influence the course of Iraq, that the US room to maneuver and the US leverage have decreased over Iran," Wolfsthal said.

Washington finds itself in an equally ambiguous position when it comes to efforts by France, Germany and Britain, which have taken up difficult negotiations to persuade Tehran to give serious and lasting guarantees that it will not try to acquire a nuclear weapon.

French ambassador to Washington, Jean David Levitte, on Sunday called on the United States to overcome its ambivalence toward the European effort.

"We would like to see the US administration joining our efforts, because that's very important to have more leverage," he told CNN.

Wolfsthal said, "This demonstrates that the Europeans are very clearly in the lead of setting policy toward Iran, not the US."

However, the incentives dangled by the Europeans, such as backing Iranian accession to the World Trade Organization, have little credibility if vetoed by Washington.

"By simply abstaining ... standing aloof from the process, the Bush administration can successfully derail the process," he said.

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