By MATTHEW B. STANNARD
San Francisco Chronicle
August 21, 2006
Nor is there much likelihood of a breakthrough before - and probably not even after - an Aug. 31 deadline set by the U.N. Security Council for Iran to accept the incentive package or face the possibility of international sanctions.
Instead, several experts said they expect a continuation of the status quo: vague statements from Iran vacillating between threats and promises; reluctance on the part of some or all of the Security Council members to act; and pages falling off the calendar as each side waits for an opening.
"One of the things that makes Iran such an interesting problem is they might well be poor strategists, but they're terrific tacticians," said Kori Schake, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. "My guess is their larger objective is to string this out as long as possible, to not give us anything to react to ... I think time very much works in Iran's favor."
The incentive package reportedly offers direct negotiations with the United States and Europe and the possibility that Iran could eventually resume uranium enrichment for energy, provided it stops enrichment until the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency can verify its claims that the program is peaceful.
Iran has given mixed signals of its plans for Tuesday. Its official news outlet, the Islamic Republic News Agency, quoted Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Wednesday as saying that Iran would be willing to discuss suspending enrichment of nuclear fuel, but that article was followed by comments from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying Iran would not give up its program and, hours later, a retraction of Mottaki's quote as inaccurate.
After Iran said last month that it would reply to the package by Aug. 22, the matter went before the U.N. Security Council, which approved a resolution carrying the potential of economic sanctions against Iran if it fails to comply by Aug. 31.
U.S. officials have dismissed Iran's self-imposed Tuesday deadline as mythical and have said they have Security Council backing for sanctions if Iran fails to act by the end of the month.
"We certainly, though, want to give the Iranians the chance to take this last opportunity to accept the offer that's on the table," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said. "The time's come for them to end their threatening behavior and to come into compliance with their international obligations."
But other forces are at play beneath the strong words, experts say - notably the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon. Throughout the Middle East, that is seen as a strategic victory for Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, because Israel failed in its stated goal to wipe out the militant Shiite group. Many analysts agree.
"Basically Iran is stronger now, and the United States is weaker," Vali Nasr, a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said in a Council on Foreign Relations interview published this month. "Much more important now is that Hezbollah and Iran are now widely popular on the Arab street. ... All of this makes Iran's hand a lot stronger and the United States' a lot more constricted."
The Security Council - despite U.S. claims - remains divided, according to most experts, who noted that China and Russia still have substantial economic ties to Tehran.
Russia has contracts to sell weapons and nuclear-reactor parts to Tehran, while China has a deal to buy cheap oil it needs to fuel its growing economy. Those ties can be seen in a caveat within the firmly worded U.N. resolution on Iran, which includes a call for further discussion before sanctions are actually administered.
If the Iranians play their cards right, Russia or China would probably veto a resolution imposing punitive sanctions, said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University.
"I would expect (the Iranians) to make a kind of statement that would allow their supporters - China and Russia - wiggle room to say they can continue negotiation," he said. "And yet, not make any definitive statement to their own deadline."
Iran's ability to play the five permanent Security Council members against each other isn't likely to change, said James Sutterlin, an expert on the United Nations at the Long Island University Center for the Study of International Organization.
"Certainly the national interests of the five permanent members are paramount. If it's in the interest for Russia ... to prevent a resolution from passing, they will do it," he said. "That means any crisis in which the national interests of one of the five permanent members is involved, the likelihood of action is fairly small."
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