Isolation Play

TEHRAN -- The U.S. failure to find weapons of mass destruction after the war in Iraq has dealt a severe blow to the Bush administration in its attempts to take a hard line on Iran at the United Nations.

A resolution adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors in Vienna, Austria, on Nov. 26 gave the administration almost none of what it wanted -- namely, condemnation and punishment of Iran for its alleged work to develop nuclear weapons. Faced with unmoving European opposition, the U.S. delegation was forced to sign a document that in effect gives a new lease on life to the UN nuclear-weapons agency and opens the door to easing Tehran's diplomatic isolation.

The Iranian government, deeply divided between the reformist President Mohammad Khatami and the unelected religious hard-liners who exercise most of the real control, now has desperately needed breathing space. The months ahead offer Iranian leaders the chance to bind Europe to Iran's side and defuse the hostility with Washington that has existed since the 1979 revolution.

The resolution, approved unanimously by the 35-nation IAEA board, was by no means completely favorable to Iran. The declaration repeatedly criticized Iran's failure to abide by its requirements under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and warned Iran's Shiite Muslim rulers that if they cheat or lie again, the issue could be sent to the UN Security Council for possible imposition of economic sanctions.

The clues of a possible Iranian nuclear-weapons program are tantalizing but inconclusive. Evidence of secret plutonium reprocessing experiments was discovered -- but only a tiny amount of plutonium was produced by 1992, when the program was stopped and the equipment destroyed. IAEA tests found traces of highly enriched uranium at two Iranian facilities last summer, but Iran's explanation that the particles came via used nuclear machinery bought on the international black market is viewed by some experts as plausible.

In general, however, Iran won simply by avoiding defeat. By blocking the U.S. demand to immediately send the case to the Security Council, Iran has opened the way for an initiative by Britain, France and Germany that allows IAEA inspectors to start a long-term monitoring program.

In the coming months, as IAEA inspectors go through the vast number of documents that Iran turned over detailing its procurement programs for nuclear equipment, they may find new proof that Iran's past declarations to the agency were incomplete or false. But the Europeans have made clear that they will cut Iran some slack. Unless the inspectors find dramatic new evidence of Iranian cheating or "smoking gun" proof that Iran has been developing nuclear weapons, Iran will be allowed to continue with its IAEA inspections and, at the same time, its Russian-backed program of building a nuclear power plant at Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf coast.

"The question is really one of psychological interpretation," said a European ambassador in Tehran. "Iran has not developed past the point where you can say for certain that X or Y proves the intent to build nuclear weapons. It all still could be for nuclear energy only. So this is simply a matter of trust, of trying to read their minds. I, for one, don't feel qualified to read minds."

The nuclear question is perhaps the only issue that unites Iran's pro-democracy reformers and the hard-liners. "Support for peaceful nuclear energy is very broad in Iran, among all political sectors," said Emadeddin Baghi, a columnist for the liberal Sharq daily who was released from prison last year after serving a two-year sentence for criticizing the nation's religious hierarchy. "Everybody believes Iran has the right to develop itself technologically. If the United States, Russia and China have oil but also have nuclear power, why not Iran?"

While the Bush administration and many foreign experts say Iran has no legitimate need to develop nuclear power because of the country's huge petroleum reserves, many Iranians stiffen with pride when asked about nuclear energy. They invariably point out that the country's conservative ayatollahs have said that it would be forbidden under Islam to develop nuclear weapons. And they note that the country's civilian nuclear program was started in 1975, under the U.S.-backed shah.

Iranian officials strongly deny in public that the country has ever worked on nuclear weapons, but some leading figures in the hard-line religious establishment indicate that some scientists may have pursued their own agenda, unbeknownst to top civilian officials.

"Those in Iran who clandestinely believed they could develop nuclear weapons have now been forced to admit that is forbidden under Islam," said Hussein Shariatmadari, president of the Kayhan newspaper chain, which is controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and an unofficial spokesman for the supreme leader. He declined to explain further.

Even if Iran comes out squeaky clean from the IAEA inspections, there remain a series of major roadblocks to further détente with Washington, if not with Europe. Agreement is far apart between Tehran and the United States on most, but perhaps not all, of the following issues:

• Uranium enrichment. The IAEA resolution calls for Iran to continue with its voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment at a plant in Natanz. This plant could produce not only fuel for civilian nuclear-energy production but the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons. Iran has stated repeatedly that it plans to eventually resume production at the Natanz plant, as it is entitled to do under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Europeans say that if the IAEA inspections come up empty, they will give Iran a green light for Natanz. In the United States, there is generally bipartisan consensus that Iran must never be allowed to enrich its own uranium.

• Al-Qaeda prisoners. For the past year, some U.S. intelligence reports have said that Iran's security services have given refuge to top al-Qaeda leaders. After a long silence on the issue, Iran has said elliptically that it has some important al-Qaeda prisoners, but it won't give names, refuses to allow foreign investigators to talk with them and has stonewalled extradition requests by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United States.

• Saudi bombings. A similar argument within the Bush administration has raged over whether the United States should reopen its direct diplomatic contacts with Iran, shut down since May after bombings in Saudi Arabia were linked by some intelligence officials to groups operating in Iran.

• Iraq. For months U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Iran of "meddling" in Iraq, stirring up dissent among the majority Shiite population. In recent days, however, military officials in Baghdad have downplayed these assertions. They now say only about 70 of the more than 11,000 prisoners in U.S. hands in Iraq are Iranian.

• Israel. Iran gives a variety of overt and covert aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Washington insists that no détente is possible until Tehran halts this aid. Most observers believe no agreement is possible between the two sides on this issue.

• Argentine bombings. The United States and Argentina have long accused Iran of involvement in two deadly terrorist attacks: the 1982 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1984 bombing of a Jewish cultural center. The case against Iran in the 1984 blast crumbled last month when Britain dismissed for lack of evidence an Argentine extradition request for Hadi Soleimanpour, who was Iran's ambassador to Argentina when the attack occurred. The 1982 case, which remains cloaked in Iranian official denials and the murkiness of the then-Argentine military dictatorship, is generally viewed as more solid.

• Mujahideen-e-Khalq. This anti-Tehran guerrilla army has long been the archenemy of the Iran government, and is on the U.S. government's official list of terrorist organizations. The group was given arms and bases in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, and after the U.S. conquest, many in Tehran and Washington alike expected that American forces would disband the group. However, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq has powerful friends among Washington neoconservatives, who view it as a means to destabilize Tehran, and it has been kept intact at its base at Khalis, north of Baghdad, under U.S. guard. Iranian officials are demanding that the group be extradited to Iran, and although they have offered the group amnesty, any such return would likely expose its members to imprisonment or death.

In the short term, none of these disputes may matter much because the IAEA inspections will take on a life of their own, giving the United Nations unprecedented power over diplomacy with Iran. Teams of scientists will fan out across Iran month after month, conducting experiments and reporting home to UN headquarters in New York. The conclusions drawn by IAEA Director General Mohammad el-Baradei in his periodic missives to the Security Council are likely to have enormous impact on the West's evolving attitudes toward Iran.

This growing UN clout reportedly has already brought proposals from Europe for the IAEA's sister organization in Iraq, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, to be turned into a permanent agency authorized to investigate biological weapons and missile programs worldwide. The proposal dovetails with efforts by the European Union and other Security Council members to send the agency's inspectors back into Iraq to finish the job that was interrupted by the U.S. invasion.

The Bush administration strongly opposes these proposals, saying American inspectors will find Saddam Hussein's banned weapons sooner or later. But if the Americans fail to come up with the proof, pressure will keep growing to give the work to the United Nations, in Iraq as in Iran.

Robert Collier is a foreign-affairs reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He recently spent a month on assignment in Iran.