"WE HAVE made our choice: yes to peaceful nuclear technology and no to nuclear weapons," said Iran's president, Muhammad Khatami, this week. But few are convinced. Among the doubters are Britain, France and Germany, the European trio that last October thought they had the makings of a face-saving deal to head off Iran's nuclear ambitions. Since then, inspectors have turned up more evidence of past wrongdoing, and Iran has turned more belligerent.
On Saturday September 18th, the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, called for a full accounting of Iran's nuclear programme when it meets next, in November. This followed a critical report by Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEAs head, circulated ahead of the meeting. The report scolded Iran for producing experimental amounts of uranium hexafluoride gas (a step in enriching uranium for bombs) and revoking an agreement to stop making centrifuge components (used to separate the bomb-grade uranium from the gas). The report also reprimanded Iran for not divulging more about a second, secret centrifuge programme that came to light earlier this year. And inspectors have still not received a satisfactory explanation for some traces of enriched uranium found at different sites in Iran.
The IAEA monitors the nuclear programmes of Iran and other states. IRNA, Iran's official news agency, publishes the government's comments on news events. See also the Iranian presidency and the Foreign Ministry. The US State Department sets out America's policies on arms control and non-proliferation, including the proliferation security initiative. The EU outlines foreign relations with Iran. The Federation of American Scientists posts comprehensive information on Iran's nuclear programme, nuclear weapons, the NPT and arms control. Australia's Uranium Information Centre gives details of the various types of nuclear reactor and how they work.
Iranian officials, miffed that the IAEA is still on their case, suggest that they may end co-operation with the agency. Iran's parliamentpacked with hardliners since thousands of reformists were prevented from standing in Februarys electionsrefuses to ratify an agreement for intrusive inspections. And Iran could drop out altogether from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, say the officials, if the IAEA board sends its case to the UN Security Council, and sanctions follow.
The United States has been pressing for referral to the Security Council for more than a year, ever since inspectors, acting on a tip-off from an exiled opposition group, uncovered an almost 20-year trail of covert nuclear research. Under last October's deal with the European three, Iran had agreed temporarily to suspend all uranium-enrichment-related activity while inspections continued; the hope was that, with the encouragement of trade in other, less dangerous technologies, the suspension could be turned into a ban.
But Iran has steadily back-tracked. This week, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation revealed that work was already under way to convert 37 tonnes of natural uranium ore into uranium hexafluorideenough for several bombs, if diverted to military use. The Americans see Irans continued intransigence as proof that it harbours weapons ambitions.
Unless Iran has a change of heart, its uranium-related activity and its continued failure to fill in some of the gaps in its nuclear story seem likely to lead to a showdown at the IAEA in November. The one hope, says Gary Samore of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, is that, despite its bravado, Iran still seems keen to avoid being reported to the Security Council. Yet it also seems determined to hang on to a nuclear option. Can diplomacy alone press it to choose?
Not if Iran assumes it can win in November. The regime has been buoyed by high oil prices, and it is feeling a certain bravado since sweeping the rigged February elections. The decline of Irans reformists makes the conservative leadership less susceptible to international pressure. It also knows that some IAEA members, notably Brazil and South Africa, are loth to see it pressed too hard over the enrichment suspension, since their nuclear industries rely on similar technologies. If inspectors come up with no additional proof of wrongdoing, if Iran promises to put off actual enrichment for the time being and, especially, if there is also a change of administration in America, it may hope to avoid harsh censure.
Good cop, bad cop?
Yet Iran is exhausting the patience of even the friendlier European governments. Britain and France have told Iran privately that it must fulfil its obligations to the IAEA, and also its original promise of a full suspension of enrichment-related activity. Germany has been less staunch, worrying more than the others that Iran may make good on its threat to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But, ultimately, it agrees with its European partners that Iran must toe the line. An Iran that went nuclear despite repeated European overtures would make a mockery of European claims to be defter at diplomacy than heavy-handed America.
And in any case, America and Europe are, for once, reading from the same page. The Europeans are keener on offering incentives and the Americans readier to threaten punishment. But they share the same goal, and the two strategies, far from being mutually exclusive, may be mutually reinforcing. Though Americans may sometimes become frustrated with European hesitation to press Iran harder, by and large the two sides are trying harder to work together than they did with Irans neighbour, Iraq. The Europeans have consulted repeatedly with America as they have made their diplomatic overtures. As Michael Levi, a non-proliferation expert, notes, Good cop, bad cop only works when the good cop and the bad cop leave the room and talk strategy together.
If Europe is the good cop and America the bad cop, Israel may be the vigilante. Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, reported this week that Israel is planning to buy 500 bunker-buster bombs from America, capable of penetrating six feet of concrete and destroying underground facilities. Israel and America both insist that there is no explicit threat to destroy Irans nuclear plants (as Israel did in Iraq in 1981), but the timing of the purchase does not look like coincidence.
What if promises and threats combined fail to move Iran? If it drops out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, this might look like an admission of guilt and make it easier for America to move the issue to the Security Council. But what happens then is anybodys guess. Russia, which holds a veto on the council, has called on Iran to do as the IAEA asks. But it has also long helped Iran with nuclear programmes it takes to be civilian, and may thus be unwilling to vote for sanctions. The newly tough European line could still open a window for diplomacy in the next couple of months. But it is unlikely to stay open long.