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U.S., Allies Seek a Way Outside U.N. to Press Iran

Worried the world body won't act forcefully against Tehran's nuclear program, a group of nations discusses levying sanctions on its own.

April 07, 2006|Paul Richter and Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — With hopes dimming for tough U.N. action against Iran's nuclear program, U.S. officials and allies are talking about forming a smaller "coalition of the willing" to bring pressure on Tehran.

The coalition, which could include Britain and France, would exert economic and diplomatic -- although not military -- leverage against Iran's rulers to comply with international demands to halt uranium enrichment activities and cooperate with international inspectors.

The Bush administration and its allies in Europe and elsewhere remain publicly committed to working through international channels, including the United Nations' Security Council and the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency. But some of the officials acknowledge that they also have been quietly exploring a nonmilitary alternative to U.N. sanctions if current Security Council efforts break down.

American officials consider a military solution impractical, although President Bush has not ruled it out.

U.S. and European diplomats say they are still a long way from collaborating outside the U.N. framework, and some questioned the proposal's chances for success.

"None of the options on Iran are good," said one senior U.S. official, who, like others who spoke on the issue, requested anonymity because the matter was still under discussion. "You play the cards you have."

John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., tacitly acknowledged Thursday that an alternative approach was under consideration. "It would be, I think, simply prudent to be looking at other options," he told reporters in Washington.

Economic sanctions against Iran would pose little inconvenience to the United States, which has cut off most dealings with Tehran, but they would be costly to many other countries that depend on Iran for oil.

Moreover, joining with the United States is likely to raise negative associations with the unpopular war in Iraq. The U.S.-led coalition there has dwindled from 38 countries to 26, with Italy and possibly several other members considering a pullout this year.

Yet allies also worry that Iran, despite its avowal that its nuclear program is for energy generation, is close to gaining crucial bomb-making know-how. They view a coalition approach as a way to forestall military action by the United States or Israel against the conservative Muslim clerics in power in Tehran.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported its concerns about Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council this year, and U.S. officials hoped for swift and stringent action, including the threat of international sanctions.

But three weeks of difficult council negotiations last month produced only a mild "presidential statement" calling on Iranians to follow U.N. rules on nuclear activities. Russian and Chinese officials made it clear that they opposed further steps toward sanctions.

Bolton, speaking to reporters Thursday morning, said the "obvious difficulty" of reaching accord in the Security Council "says something about the difficulty of the road ahead."

Applying similar economic pressure outside the U.N. structure would require multiple informal agreements among a group of countries, each of which would impose a set of sanctions.

The officials said that if they decided to work as a coalition, they would use the same general approach they have considered for possible U.N. sanctions.

Sanctions would focus on the Iranian leadership, to avoid punishing ordinary Iranians, but could be broadened. Initial measures could include bans on travel to the participating countries, a freeze on personal assets held abroad and restrictions on international lending.

Advocates say Western countries have enormous leverage because Iran imports so many manufactured and processed products, including gasoline. Some advocates note that the talk of international sanctions on Iran already has caused foreign companies to reduce investments and has diminished the country's standing with international lenders.

A second senior U.S. official, who noted that more than 50% of Iran's manufactured goods come from Europe, said Washington had been pressing China, Russia, India and Japan to use their exports to Iran as leverage.

He said that sanctions could generate huge social pressure, since two-thirds of Iranians are younger than 30 and many lack jobs and adequate housing.

"Potentially, in a couple of years there could be revolutionary conditions on the Iranian street," the second official said. "It will take a real threat of sanctions, or actual sanctions, to get the regime to have a change of heart. But hopefully that will work."

The Bush administration and its allies have been working together to put in place what the U.S. calls "defensive measures" on Tehran. For instance, they are working to expand the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S. program involving dozens of countries that use various methods to block illegal trade in nuclear and related technologies, Bolton noted Thursday.

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