Iran claimed yesterday that the West had given it another month to accept a United Nations-brokered nuclear deal - as Tehran defiantly set its own end-of-January deadline for world powers to agree to its already rejected counter proposals. Trumpeting Iran's hardened stance with confidence, Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister, warned that the Islamic republic would otherwise start producing more highly enriched uranium to fuel a Tehran medical research reactor.
"This is an ultimatum," he proclaimed. Reacting to his statement on Saturday, Washington insisted the original deal was sufficient and that the Iranian government was "standing in its own way". The White House, fearful of undermining Iran's resurgent opposition, is now understood to be weighing new sanctions against members of Iran's government and most notably the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The elite force, which has huge political and economic clout, drives Iran's nuclear programme and oversees the brutal crackdown on internal dissent. There are already substantial sanctions banning business dealings with the IRGC and travel by its leaders. US treasury department officials are understood to be identifying other IRGC front companies to target for possible action. The Washington Post said this week that the US administration wanted targeted sanctions to avoid alienating the Iranian public, while keeping the door open to a diplomatic resolution of the protracted crisis over Tehran's nuclear programme.
Such measures should also help to dissuade Israel, the region's nuclear-armed superpower, from launching a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, said yesterday that the world was "uniting against Iran's nuclear programme" and that he expected the UN Security Council to adopt fresh sanctions against Iran within a month. Punitive measures focusing on Iran's leaders and the IRGC would rule out strident calls by hawks in Washington to sanction companies that meet Iran's pressing, if unlikely, need for petrol imports.
Accused of appeasing a repressive regime, Barack Obama, the US president, has been under strong domestic pressure to push for "crippling" sanctions if his 10-month-old policy of diplomatic outreach to Iran failed to deliver results. The Islamic republic, while a major producer of crude oil, has limited refining capacity and imports nearly 40 per cent of its gasoline needs. Iranian dissidents oppose a petrol embargo, arguing it would hurt ordinary people while strengthening the regime.
Petrol sanctions, many argue, would enrich and even strengthen the IRGC, which has access to government gasoline reserves and controls, the underground economy that would profit from petrol smuggling. The New York Times reported yesterday that Mr Obama's administration believes that Iran's post-election domestic unrest and signs of unexpected setbacks in its nuclear programme make its leaders acutely vulnerable to strong and immediate fresh sanctions.
The Islamic republic's political clock is ticking faster than its unreliable nuclear one, Iran experts believe. The country's political upheaval, in other words, could spawn a reformed new leadership less adversarial to the west and its nuclear concerns well before the current regime has the ability to produce a bomb. Many believe that the Iranian leadership's self-inflicted crisis - with turmoil on the streets and unprecedented political infighting - has stymied its ability to negotiate on its nuclear programme.
International nuclear inspectors, meanwhile, estimate that the number of centrifuges spinning uranium at Iran's plant in Natanz has dropped by 20 per cent since the summer, a decline apparently due to technical problems. Given these developments, Mr Obama's policymakers have lengthened their estimate of how long it would take Iran to accomplish what nuclear experts call "covert breakout" - the ability to secretly produce a workable weapon, The New York Times reported.
"For now, the Iranians don't have a credible breakout option, and we don't think they will have one for at least 18 months, maybe two to three years," a senior US administration official told the daily newspaper. That allows more time for sanctions to persuade Iran that its nuclear programme "isn't worth the price tag". Washington and its allies had set Iran a December 31 deadline to accept the UN-brokered proposals to defuse the nuclear deadlock: Iran tentatively agreed to them last October before reneging on the deal.
Nuclear experts said it could take Iran years to master the technology to turn its low-enriched uranium into the higher level required to fuel its medical reactor. Nevertheless, by raising the stakes rhetorically, the Iranian regime may be hoping to draw the West into a confrontation to divert attention from political upheaval at home, analysts said. The three-month-old UN nuclear accord requires Iran to send about 75 per cent of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad in one batch for further enrichment and conversion into fuel rods for its internationally monitored medical reactor.
The confidence-building measure would delay Iran's potential to build a nuclear bomb by a year, according to experts, buying time for a comprehensive settlement of the seven-year-old nuclear dispute. Mr Mottaki did not detail Iran's counter-offer, but said previously that Iran would agree to a simultaneous uranium swap either in Iran or in Turkey. Such terms have already been rebuffed by the West because they would not stall Iran's ability to develop a weapon. Tehran denies any such weapons ambition, insisting its nuclear programme is solely aimed at the peaceful generation of electricity.
Mr Ahmadinejad had initially appeared to welcome the uranium exchange accord, apparently viewing negotiations with western powers as a way to bolster his legitimacy, which has been undermined domestically by his disputed re-election in June. But the Iranian president swiftly backtracked after rivals across the political spectrum attacked the deal, mostly to prevent him taking any credit for a diplomatic breakthrough that would improve relations with the US, which polls show would be popular with most Iranians.
Karim Sadjadpour, a Washington-based Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said punishing the IRGC "makes sense because it potentially kills several birds with one stone". The force, he wrote, is "managing Iran's nuclear programme, liaising with extremist groups throughout the Middle East, and overseeing the brutal suppression of non-violent protesters". @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org