UNITED NATIONS — As America and its allies attempt to minimize the fallout from this week's intelligence report discounting the threat of Iran's nuclear program, diplomats here say they expect the report to hinder their attempt to add muscle to the diplomatic goal of isolating the mullah regime.
The news isn't all bad: Secretary of State Rice yesterday gained support from Iran's largest European trading partner, Germany, for a new round of sanctions on Iran and from other European allies.
Another boost came from Secretary-General Ban, who reminded all parties yesterday that regardless of Washington's new National Intelligence Estimate, Iran is in violation of Security Council resolutions that carry the weight of international law.
Western diplomats say, though, the calendar dictates that a council resolution containing a new round of sanctions must be reached soon, which means they may have to soften and dilute any punitive measures.
The NIE report determined with "high confidence" that Iran halted its nuclear weapon program in 2003. Such a determination "will have an input" to the Security Council's negotiations, China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, told The New York Sun yesterday. "If they want to do it fast," America, France, and Britain "should not be too ambitious" in crafting a proposal for tough new sanctions, he added.
"I don't see that the NIE changes the course that we're on," Ms. Rice said yesterday in Europe, countering Mr. Wang's assessment. "I would think given the assessment that Iran is indeed susceptible to coordinated international pressure" that the countries are taking "the right approach." She spoke to reporters on a flight from NATO headquarters, according to the Associated Press.
Ms. Rice met several key European and NATO officials in an attempt to solidify the position on Iran. "I think we are in a process, and that Iran continues to pose a danger," Chancellor Merkel of Germany said in Paris alongside President Sarkozy, who has been one of the strongest proponents of uniting Europe for the imposition of economic sanctions on Iran. Ms. Rice was also expected to meet Israel's foreign minister Friday in Jerusalem, where Israeli officials have expressed their differences with the NIE assessments.
Even after the NIE report, "still I believe it is important that Iranian government should fully comply with the relevant Security Council resolutions," Mr. Ban told reporters yesterday. Even now, he added, the "Iranians have been enriching uranium against Security Council resolutions."
According to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a signatory, all members have the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but "this is not without any conditions," he said. Signatories "should fully comply with all the regulations to verify and they should be under strict monitoring programs," he added.
The Security Council has already imposed sanctions on Iran in two separate resolutions, citing Tehran's refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, as instructed by the council. According to the NIE report, Iran has ceased a clandestine enrichment program seen as a precursor to producing a weapon. Far from suspending enrichment altogether, however, Iran has openly accelerated its activities at the Natanz facility in a fashion that leads many to believe the enrichment program can only be used for creating a bomb.
Nevertheless, Chinese diplomats and other council members say the NIE report changes the assessment of Iran's intentions, which complicates any hope to unite the council around a new resolution.
A Western U.N. diplomat who briefed reporters earlier this week on condition of anonymity said council negotiations on a new sanctions resolution would preferably have to be completed before Christmas, when most diplomats leave for the yearend holidays, or at the latest before five new countries join the 15-member council on January 1. The new members, which include Libya, will have to acquaint themselves with the world body's procedures, and this means any action will take much longer, the diplomat explained.
On Friday, officials of the foreign offices of the five permanent council members and Germany are expected to conduct a new round of negotiations in a conference call.
The issue of Iran will move to the diplomats in New York next week at the earliest. "We have not seen anything yet" in form of new proposals, Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told the Sun yesterday. If America, France, and Britain want to pass anything this year, they "better do it fast," he added.