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. US may struggle to secure sanctions against Iran
WASHINGTON (AFP) Aug 10, 2005
The United States may find it difficult to win support for punitive sanctions against Iran if the regime refuses to back down over its nuclear programme, analysts said.

With its plentiful oil resources and sensitive geographic position next to Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran enjoys a strong negotiating position despite US warnings that the issue may be referred to the UN Security Council.

Iran drew sharp criticism in Western capitals following its decision this week to restart its nuclear programme after talks with Britain, France and Germany apparently reached an impasse. But Iran appears to be gambling that US military action is unlikely and that Europe, Russia and China are anxious to avoid jeopardising their access to oil and lucrative trade.

"This is a very tough move designed to change the leverage in negotiations, to change the equation of the negotiations," said Shibley Telhami, professor at the University of Maryland and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank.

Iran's new hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has sent out mixed signals, dismissing the latest European proposal for a compromise deal as "insulting" while also saying he was ready to negotiate based on his own fresh initiatives.

As diplomatic tensions mount over Iran's nuclear ambitions, the theocratic leadership appears intent on staking out a more aggressive stance, trying to set the agenda for future talks, Telhami said. "That's what this appears to be, hitting on the one hand and offering with the other."

Iran insists its nuclear project is meant to meet booming demand for eletricity but the United States and European governments believe Tehran's extensive and secretive efforts are designed to produce a nuclear arsenal.

The Bush administration faces an initial challenge this week to convince the UN atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to refer the issue to the UN Security Council. Non-aligned countries and other governments on the IAEA's board have tended to reject strongly-worded resolutions backed by the United States.

Even if the United States gets Iran before the Security Council, it is not at all assured of winning support for economic penalties, said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"It depends on how tough the Europeans are prepared to be," O'Hanlon said.

"Iran might discern, rightly or wrongly, that Europe will continue to trade with it regardless of what happens."

Russia and China also would be reluctant to support any hard-hitting embargo with a country considered an important trading partner and supplier of oil, he added.

The overriding US goal so far has been to move the issue to the UN Security Council, hoping that alone might push the Iranian regime to back off. But O'Hanlon said it is not clear foreign ministries have a well-thought out strategy as to what action the Security Council should take.

"Policy makers probably haven't thought four or five steps ahead," he said.

President George W. Bush reversed his position this year and chose to back a British-French- German diplomatic initiative offering peaceful nuclear technology and trade to Iran in return for Tehran giving up uranium enrichment activities.

In an editorial, the Washington Post urged the United States and Europe to present Iran with a united front but questioned whether European allies would be ready to impose economic penalties. "What remains to be seen is whether the Europeans will come through, as they have promised they would, with a tough-minded push for sanctions," the newspaper wrote.

The editorial said no options should be ruled out, an allusion to possible military action against Iran's nuclear sites.

Washington analysts said air strikes targeting facilities such as uranium conversion plants remain a remote possibility as US troops in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan would be vulnerable to retaliation.

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