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Just A War Of Words, At Least For Now

UNITED NATIONS--"I officially announce that, in our opinion, the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed." With those words to the United Nations General Assembly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad escalated his nation's defiance of demands by the U.N. Security Council--and the United States--to stop its disputed uranium-enrichment activities.

At the U.N., and in a publicity blitz during his New York visit, Ahmadinejad seemed to delight in the passions stirred by his role as provocateur, even as his own political standing at home has slumped amid Iran's economic problems. For his part, President Bush gave Iran only a passing mention when he spoke to the world body, but Iran was very much in mind.

The president, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and other officials were working intensively on the edges of the U.N. session, trying to gain traction for stalled efforts to impose further international sanctions on Iran to force it to halt a suspected drive to develop nuclear weapons.

Ahmadinejad dismissed the legitimacy of U.N. Security Council demands on Iran--calling existing U.N. sanctions "illegal"--and asserted Iran's "legal rights" to pursue nuclear power for what he claimed were peaceful purposes. To that end, he said, Iran will cooperate with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to resolve "technical" issues about its nuclear program.

There was little sign that Iran's resistance is giving an immediate boost to the U.S. campaign for a third round of Security Council sanctions, languishing amid opposition from veto-wielding Russia and China. As a result, American and some European officials are talking up the need to unleash harsher sanctions outside of the U.N., using a "coalition of the willing." That would expand a mostly U.S.-led effort to snuff out overseas loans and credit guarantees to Iran and dry up outside investment in Iran's oil and natural gas industries.

Roadblocks. But the administration's "big push" for new sanctions, as one official put it, has hit an array of obstacles. Both Russia and China, each with considerable commercial interests in Iran, are determined to wait and see whether an August 21 deal brokered by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei for improved Iranian cooperation will show progress by late this year. Both warn that further sanctions now could upend the ElBaradei deal. "We want this process to conclude unimpeded," says Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Another factor: Russian President Vladimir Putin is heading for Tehran this month for a Caspian Sea regional summit.

In any case, U.S. officials consider ElBaradei's deal weak for failing to advance the specific demand that Iran halt the nuclear-fuel work--which is seen as a step toward nuclear weapons--as well as an exercise in meddling by an international technocrat that has played into the hands of Iran.

Meanwhile, France, under its new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has moved closer to the U.S. position in Iran and is positioning itself to lead a drive for European Union sanctions on Iran. Britain also appears to remain a steady backer of new penalties. Some American officials, though, have grown concerned about backing from Germany, citing its economic ties to Iran and its calls for maintaining Security Council unity. The Germans say they haven't gone soft. "We are on board," insists a German official.

Finally, doubts about what the U.N. sanctions process can accomplish are rising within the Bush administration. "It's obvious that the U.N. Security Council sanctions process is leading nowhere," complains one official. "Everyone hoped diplomacy would have been more successful than it's proven to be." Another U.S. official asserts that State Department officials were "hoodwinked" by Russia into accepting relatively weak measures in the previous sanctions resolution. At the time, there was a Russian commitment to back stronger penalties promply if Iran refused to suspend the uranium enrichment within 90 days. That deadline passed about three months ago.

By Thomas Omestad