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The Ottawa Citizen March 10, 2006

U.S. faces 'no greater' challenge than defiant Iran

Regime continues to threaten U.S. over nuclear program

By Steven Edwards

UNITED NATIONS - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Washington may face "no greater" challenge from any country than Iran as the nuclear stand-off with Tehran's hardline regime escalated.

Ms. Rice spoke yesterday at a congressional hearing in the U.S. capital just hours after Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country would not abandon its nuclear ambitions in reaction to "bullying and brutality," and declared that the U.S. will "suffer more" if it succeeds in convincing the United Nations to impose sanctions against Tehran. A day earlier, Iran threatened the United States with "harm and pain" if sanctions were imposed.

"We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran, whose policies are directed at developing a Middle East that would be 180 degrees different than the Middle East we would like to see develop," Ms. Rice warned the Senate appropriations committee.

Ms. Rice and U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged adoption of a package aimed at promoting democracy in the Islamic republic.

"This is a country that is determined, it seems, to develop a nuclear weapon in defiance of the international community that is determined that they should not get one."

Canada was among countries of the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the UN's Vienna-based nuclear watchdog -- that Wednesday sent the question of Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council. The 15-nation body can discipline a country that is defying international law by imposing sanctions ranging from travel bans on its leaders to an economic embargo. It can also endorse a military strike.

But key envoys were already saying there is little appetite to quickly get tough on Iran, which has reacted to the mounting pressure by ending its suspension of uranium enrichment -- a process that can produce fuel for a nuclear bomb.

"We will follow a gradual approach ... because what we want is Iran to go back to suspension," said France's UN Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere.

France holds veto power in the Security Council along with Britain, China, Russia and the United States.

Russia and China, both long-time allies and trading partners of Iran, have already made clear they do not believe sanctions could be effective.

The mood was summarized by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said of sanctions: "We are far, far away from that."

Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the IAEA says it has not been sufficiently open about its nuclear program, raising concerns Tehran is lying when it says energy production is its only goal.

The United States has welcomed Russia's offer to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian soil, but Tehran has yet to accept the deal.

If the standoff drags on, some pundits predict the United States or Israel, which the Iranian president has said should be "wiped off the map," will launch a military strike to disable at least part of Iran's nuclear facilities.

"Tehran's got half of a deal with the Russians, so Moscow is going to say 'give peace a chance,'" said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a Washington-based military information database.

"That will play itself out, while the U.S. government will continue to make the case as to why a nuclear-armed Iran is a bad thing. But if there is no concrete progress, I believe the United States will bomb their facilities as soon as next year, and if they don't, the Israelis will."

Iran's ability to impose "harm and pain" on the United States is not baseless, other experts explain.

"Iran can retaliate both through economic and unconventional means, and it would be unrealistic to expect them to fight fair, because they know they'll lose in a fair fight," said Jon Wolfsthal, fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

He noted Iran is a major international oil supplier with ties to Middle East groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, which have launched terrorist attacks on Israel and in the wider region. Its Shia leadership could also encourage anti-U.S. violence by the Shia in Iraq.

"I don't think Iran is going to cut off the flow of oil, but they could easily raise oil's price just by threatening an embargo, and that would be enough to drive some countries into recession," Mr. Wolfsthal said.

Critics of U.S. policy toward Iran say Washington is guilty of hypocrisy by signing an energy deal with nuclear-armed India, which has refused to be a part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"The U.S. is pursuing a nuclear deal with India which undermines the NPT. So why should we expect Iran to follow the treaty?" said Alice Slater, president of the Grace Policy Institute, a New York-based anti-nuclear activist group.


Copyright 2006, The Ottawa Citizen