Clock ticks for Iran despite Obama's offer of talks

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States will push for new U.N. sanctions against Iran later this year if President Barack Obama’s effort to improve relations fails to stop Tehran from pursuing its nuclear program.

But plans for a fourth round of international sanctions will remain on hold at least until after Iran’s presidential elections in June, diplomats said.

There are hopes in Washington and other Western capitals that a moderate will win the Iranian election and seize upon President Barack Obama’s recent offer of new diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s nuclear policy is controlled by its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the president. But a victory for conservatives -- Iranian officials reacted coolly to Obama’s videotaped offer and vowed to continue their uranium enrichment program -- could lower the chances of success of Obama’s new strategy.

Washington and other Western nations suspect Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, as does Israel. But Tehran insists its nuclear program is geared solely to generating electricity and boosting its oil exports.

More important than the outcome of the Iranian election, analysts say, is the question of how long Israel will be willing to wait to see if the U.S. approach is working before taking a decision on whether to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. State Department official and nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said Iran will not have much time after its elections to change gears on the nuclear front.

“Israel is not going to wait forever,” he said. “I couldn’t give you a prediction of months, but I don’t think that Iran has all that much time. They have an opportunity now and they should seize it.”


Israel’s new leader appeared to confirm that assessment in an interview with a U.S. magazine.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several of his military aides told Atlantic magazine this week that the Jewish state would not wait too long. One Israeli military aide was quoted as saying Israel’s time lines are now drawn in months, “not years.”

Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osiraq in 1981 and has suggested it was prepared to do the same in Iran.

Obama’s shift from his predecessor’s policy of isolating Tehran has backing from Britain, France and Germany. These countries are helping to spearhead efforts to persuade Iran to freeze its enrichment program in compliance with five Security Council resolutions.

Russia and China have also welcomed the overture.

“Now is not the time to be rushing for more sanctions ... Now is the time to be backing the American outreach that is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said this week.

The United States severed ties with Iran in 1980 after militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held diplomats and officials hostage. Ties between the two countries remained on ice for years, through former President George W. Bush’s administration.

In one sign of change, Washington and Tehran have already resumed some tentative contacts. This week U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke met briefly with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh on the sidelines of a meeting on Afghanistan in The Hague.

At the same time analysts and diplomats said the Obama administration would be realistic about its chances of a breakthrough on the Iranian problem and was aware that Iran may use talks to buy time to complete its nuclear program.

Work on a new U.N. sanctions resolution would likely commence later this year if Iran continues enriching uranium, the analysts and diplomats said, but the focus at the moment will be on engagement, not punishment.

“He’s (Obama) not going to be comfortable right off the box threatening,” said Henry Sokolski, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “They’ve branded themselves as the engagers and they’ll stick to the brand for now.”

Iran’s progress in developing it’s nuclear capability is also likely to provide a limit to Western patience.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog reports that Iran is making progress in purifying uranium using difficult centrifuge technology. According to one Western diplomat, that trend is “unsettling” and “cannot continue indefinitely.”

The prospect that Russia and China, both of which have vetoes in the Security Council, will support new sanctions also hovers over the Iranian issue. Moscow and Beijing reluctantly backed three rounds of U.N. sanctions but watered them down.

Editing by Paul Simao and Chris Wilson