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How long can the US and its allies wait before taking action to stop Iran's nuclear program?
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The plan was to use direct engagement as the carrot and punishing economic sanctions as the stick, but neither carrot nor stick seems sufficient to persuade Iran’s tottering regime to curb its nuclear ambitions.
The Obama administration’s end-of-the-year deadline for an agreement with Tehran has quietly slipped by and the new deadline now appears to be May, ahead of the review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Whatever hopes Washington and its European allies may have had for presenting Iran with a credible threat of sanctions evaporated last week when China sent the diplomatic equivalent of third-string benchwarmer to a varsity level meeting of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.
The meeting was called to discuss a new round of sanctions, but all that was agreed was to try again in a teleconference at a later date.
Although the Chinese foot-dragging is frustrating to the United States, it may be a benefit in disguise.
Iran’s deeply unpopular government, an uneasy marriage of convenience between conservative mullahs and the hardline Revolutionary Guard Corps, clings to power by resorting to increasingly repressive measures against a reform movement that is growing in strength.
Meanwhile, nuclear experts believe that Iran’s program to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel has run into significant technical problems and that many of its centrifuges are not working, either because of design problems or possible sabotage.
“So it seems there is a little more time available. Why not sit on the sidelines a little while and watch the political process play out in Iran,” said Christian Koch, a security specialist at the Gulf Research Center, a Dubai think tank.
Koch said it was “short-sighted” to think that an agreement was possible with the current regime, given the severe stresses that it now faces.
“And even if you achieved a deal tomorrow, who could trust it? Who could say that in six months time, they won’t change their mind,” he said.