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Last Updated: Monday, 29 November, 2004, 23:07 GMT
US thwarted over Iran

By Jill McGivering
BBC State Department correspondent

A general view of Iran's first nuclear reactor, being built in Bushehr
Iran faces the threat of sanctions if it does not halt its nuclear plans
This latest IAEA resolution on Iran is not the result the United States wanted.

Its own intense lobbying at successive IAEA Board of Governors meetings has consistently recommended that the time had come to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.

The US argument had hinged not just on Iran's current activities but also on Iran's track record of broken promises and failed deals with the international community.

The thinking in Washington is, Iran is a serious threat and enough is enough.

European caution

But the US did not manage to convince fellow board members.

The so-called European Three - France, Germany and Britain - have consistently responded by arguing that the diplomatic route had not yet been exhausted and ultimately would prove more effective than the threat or even imposition of international sanctions.

The EU Three have been cautious about accepting the US claim that Iran's nuclear programme is about weapons, not about power.

The US says it has evidence to support its claim but it is hard to verify.

After the experience of Iraq and the very public failure to find evidence of WMDs, the US is low on credibility credit.

US isolated

With the EU Three determined to pursue diplomacy, the US found itself in awkward isolation.

It tried to minimise its differences with Europe by saying in public that it supported the EU Three negotiations and repeatedly insisting it was in close contact with the European trio as the talks progressed.

But it was equally clear that the US would take no part in the process.

Some accused the US of undermining the deal by repeating its own suspicions about Iran's sincerity in public as the negotiations reached a delicate stage.

Perhaps it was a deliberate ploy - a strategy of good cop, bad cop.

Or it might just be evidence of another US-European split, evoking more painful memories of Iraq.

As news of the deal broke, the US struggled to put a brave face on what, from a US standpoint, must have seemed disastrous news.

We haven't sprung new faith in Iran's willingness to do this. ...the US remains as sceptical as ever that Iran lives up to the terms of this agreement
Richard Boucher, US State Department spokesman
When a reporter asked the US state department spokesman Richard Boucher about the US "losing its battle" to get Iran referred to the UN Security Council, he was accused of looking for the most negative aspect of the issue.

The State Department's carefully diplomatic response was that this resolution was a positive move.

That the US case against Iran had contributed to, perhaps even been responsible for, the stronger international focus and pressure on Iran which had led to the resolution.

If Iran abided by the terms of the resolution, said Mr Boucher, it would have suspended all uranium enrichment and nuclear development programmes - which was the ultimate US aim.

Reminded of the US position that Iran's past record as well as future behaviour also warranted referral, he agreed - it was still the US view today that Iran should be referred, he confirmed, even before the current deal were tested.

The scepticism about Iran in Washington is writ large.

Mr Boucher, when pressed, spelt it out.

"We haven't sprung new faith in Iran's willingness to do this", he said, adding, "the US remains as sceptical as ever that Iran lives up to the terms of this agreement."

Few choices for US

The problem for Washington is that although it has run out of patience, the rest of the world has not.

The US does not believe Iran's promises. Europe is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Washington sees Iran's nuclear programme as an immediate threat that requires prompt action.

Europe is not convinced sticks will work better than carrots.

US officials accuse Iran of a proven pattern of brinkmanship, arguing that Tehran buys time with last minute deals to avoid imminent punishment but is not sincere.

If Tehran is at a crucial stage in developing nuclear weapons, the time it has just bought through its latest European-sponsored deal could prove decisive.

But, however frustrated, Washington has few choices.

A unilateral referral to the UN Security Council is unlikely to get support, especially now that a deal has already been reached.

If in the future the IAEA proves that Iran breaks its latest commitments, the US can once again shout loudly for punitive action.

But by then, some here argue, valuable time will have been lost, and it may be too late.

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