Six world powers, including China, agreed Wednesday to begin drafting a UN Security Council resolution for new sanctions against Iran, in an effort to halt its nuclear program.
This is the first time China has agreed to sanctions, a move that comes after months of pressure from the Obama administration. The other countries, which reached the agreement by conference call, are the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany and France, Reuters reported Wednesday.
But while the agreement seems to be an achievement for the Obama administration, China will agree only to relatively weak sanctions, the news agency quoted diplomats as saying.
Early Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said he hoped the sanctions would be in place within weeks. However, Security Council deliberations could drag on until June.
Even then, additional sanctions imposed separately by the United States and other Western countries will be needed to keep Iran from going nuclear.
Israel had initially hoped, following talks with U.S. officials, that the sanctions would be declared at the beginning of this year.
A recent CIA report found that Iran is moving closer to becoming a nuclear power, apparently signaling a change in the thinking of the American intelligence community since late 2007, when a separate report found there was no proof Iran had renewed its work toward a military-grade nuclear weapon after it was halted in 2003.
The International Atomic Energy Agency also suspects that Iran is building another uranium enrichment facility, according to a report released this week.
The sense from these reports, as from conversations with senior Israeli government and military figures, is that the world now fully accepts Israel's conclusion that Iran is seeking to obtain nuclear arms and has overcome initial resistance to the finding. At least in the West, there is widespread agreement that Iran has reached an advanced stage of its nuclear program and that none of the steps taken so far have diverted it from that goal.
The key question is how far the world powers are prepared to go to stop the nuclear program.
The latest CIA report, whose tone is general and does not openly contradict the 2007 report, does not necessarily attest to American determination.
Sources in Jerusalem say that behind closed doors, American and European officials are already discussing how to face the "day after" Iran attains nuclear weapons.
Although publicly Israel is downplaying the crisis in its relations with the United States, the rift will have an impact on the attempt to keep Tehran in check, making bilateral coordination more difficult.
The passing of the health care bill was not Obama's only recent success. He also took a hard line with Russia on nuclear proliferation and the announcement of arms sales to Taiwan. It remains to be seen whether the next tough stance will be against Iran - or against Israel.
If the rift persists, it could move Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu closer to taking dangerous steps against Tehran, although a successful attack on Iran's nuclear facilities without coordination with the United States would be very difficult.
Optimists hope that heavy external pressure on Iran will encourage domestic opposition or persuade the Iranians to back down from their nuclear program, as Libya did in 2002.
But there is also the opposite scenario, that of North Korea. When a senior representative from Pyongyang was asked in Moscow last month at an international conference on nuclear proliferation what assurances his country needed for its security, he said: "We do not have to talk. We have nuclear weapons."
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