WASHINGTON - Alarmed that Iran may be getting closer to producing nuclear weapons, the Bush administration hopes to mobilize international pressure this week by spotlighting fresh concerns by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency.
But a U.S. official acknowledged yesterday that the United States is limited to trying to exploit Iran's fear of being viewed as an international outlaw.
Hopes of getting the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions against Iran appear doomed for the foreseeable future by the prospect of vetoes by Russia and China, said a U.S. official involved in efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear arms.
At the same time, a Washington analyst who closely follows Iran warned that Tehran might try to exploit the turmoil in neighboring Iraq as a way to force the United States to ease pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program.
The IAEA's board of governors, meeting this week in Vienna, Austria, is expected to issue what a Western diplomat described as "very firm" criticism of Tehran for failing to cooperate with the nuclear watchdog agency's inspectors.
The agency's director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, faulted Iran yesterday for "less than satisfactory" cooperation. In a report to the board, ElBaradei appeared to reject Iran's explanation for traces of weapons-grade nuclear materials found during inspections. Iran claims that the traces came from contaminated equipment imported from abroad. But ElBaradei said Tehran's information "has not been sufficient to resolve this complex matter."
ElBaradei contended that Iran has given "changing and at times contradictory" data to inspectors about its efforts to import and manufacture centrifuges, which can be used to produce weapons-grade uranium. He said it is "essential" to resolve gaps and discrepancies in Iran's nuclear program "within the next few months."
U.S. officials were encouraged by ElBaradei's statement, which they took as a sign of growing impatience with Iran at the IAEA and among major European powers.
Last year, Britain, France and Germany won Iran's agreement to give inspectors a full accounting of its nuclear program, which Tehran has said is intended to generate electricity, not produce weapons.
U.S. diplomats say there are increasing signs that Europeans agree that Iran is trying to hide a nuclear arms program. One said Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, didn't help his country's relations with the IAEA when he declared that Iran "has a high technical capability and has to be recognized by the international community as a member of the nuclear club," a term widely applied to nations that have nuclear weapons.
The IAEA's action this week is expected to stop short of declaring Iran in violation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and seeking action from the Security Council. Such a move is unlikely before fall, even if Iran's level of cooperation fails to improve, and might not come until spring, U.S. officials said.
While the Security Council could impose sanctions, the likely outcome would be a deadlock, with Russia and China threatening to veto any strong punishment of Iran, a U.S. official said.
President Vladimir V. Putin refused again last week to cancel Russia's contracts to help Iran develop its Bushehr nuclear power plant, which the United States has tried unsuccessfully for years to block.
"We could stop our cooperation with Tehran if Iran refuses to be transparent and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency," Putin said at a news conference at the end of the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga., where he held a separate meeting with President Bush. "But for the moment, we have no reason to do that."
Spotlight on Tehran
Despite the probable deadlock in the Security Council, the slowly building pressure on Iran would have an impact, a U.S. official said.
"Iranians don't like being branded an international outlaw," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said the threat of a high-profile Security Council debate on Iran would "keep the spotlight" on Tehran to cooperate with international weapons inspectors. "It puts the world on notice that Iranians are involved in nuclear weapons preparations."
No state could justify providing equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons as well as to generate electricity, he said. "The Russians couldn't justify Bushehr."
Having been burned by poor intelligence data on Iraq's programs to develop banned weapons, U.S. officials are circumspect in describing Iran's progress toward becoming a nuclear power. They appear to be more willing to listen to ElBaradei, who publicly contradicted last year Bush administration claims to have incriminating evidence against Iraq.
"They're not near a bomb, as far as we can tell," a U.S. official said. He described Iran as being five or 10 years away from developing a nuclear weapon.