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U.S. to stay course on Iran policy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tehran and Washington opened 2008 with a torrent of rhetoric but U.S. officials and Iran experts say there is little chance of a switch in tactics away from sanctions toward incentives or military action.

President George W. Bush has just a year left in office and three senior U.S. officials said there were no immediate moves to tweak U.S. strategy, which aims to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The plan is to continue to try to contain Tehran’s military activities with a U.S. presence in the Gulf and incrementally impose more sanctions, both unilaterally and through the United Nations, for as long as Iran refuses to give up nuclear work.

“We believe that the current policy line is the appropriate one given the reality of Iranian behaviors and non-responsiveness to the pressures the international community has put on them on the nuclear issue,” said a senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named.

After Iranian speed boats harassed a U.S. warship in the Strait of Hormuz this month, Bush, on a trip to the Middle East, warned of serious consequences if it happened again.

But there is little mention of any U.S. military action even though a government audit this week questioned the efficacy of sanctions and concluded it was hard to determine if they were working, pointing to increased investment in Iran.

The United States cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980 and relations have been strained ever since, currently over the nuclear program and what Washington sees as meddling in Iraq.

A U.S. intelligence estimate last month said Iran halted its nuclear weapons efforts in 2003, prompting talk that Washington could now offer some economic “sweeteners” -- particularly as veto-wielding U.N. Security Council members Russia and China intensified their stalling on new sanctions.

Previous offers made by major powers to get Iran to give up its nuclear work have been airline parts for civilian planes, dropping objections to entry to the World Trade Organization and talks with the United States on any subject if Tehran suspended enrichment of uranium.

Iran, the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter, insists its uranium enrichment is aimed at generating electricity so that it can ship more oil and gas.

CARROT OR STICK?

U.S. officials dismissed talk of more carrots than sticks being offered to Iran in response to the new intelligence.

“Such a conclusion would be ill-advised,” a senior U.S. official said.

Analysts said Bush would not want to reward hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in turn is holding out until the next U.S. administration takes office in January 2009.

“This president (Bush) does not believe that showing them a little bit more love will break the logjam,” said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank.

The view in the Bush administration is that, despite the intelligence report, Iran remains a serious strategic threat.

“They were a threat, they are a threat and they will continue to be a threat. We think we have had great success convincing people that this is the case,” said another senior official, who also declined to be named.

“The main problem is right now that we don’t have transparency on why they are enriching. It doesn’t make sense.”

Foreign ministers from major powers are set to meet in Berlin next week to discuss a long-stalled third Security Council sanctions resolution against Iran which Washington wants agreed on this month, or by Iranian elections in March.

But experts predict the resolution will lack the necessary teeth to get Iran to change its behavior.

“Between the two of them, the Russians and Chinese have vetoed the most significant provisions in the resolution,” said Iran expert Gary Samore of the Council on Foreign Relations.

With oil having touched $100 a barrel, some experts say Iran has a comfortable cushion and can stomach sanctions.

But U.S. officials say there is strong evidence that sanctions are working, particularly in making it difficult for state-owned Iranian banks to do business.

“The pendulum has swung almost to the extreme that it is the unusual bank that will take the money without asking hard questions,” said a senior U.S. Treasury official.

Another area where the United States will keep up pressure is in Iraq, where Washington says Iran’s elite Qods Force is stoking the insurgency. Last week, Washington imposed sanctions on a Qods Force general and more measures will likely follow.

“We have absolutely no indication that there have been or is any meaningful and significant diminution in what Iran is doing (in Iraq),” said a third senior U.S. official.

“The Iranians need to be aware, as the president has made very clear, we have a variety of options at our disposal and we will continue to invoke those options.”

Editing by John O’Callaghan

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