UNITED NATIONS - The timetable for adopting sanctions against Iran has been thrown into a muddle, running into a major nuclear non-proliferation conference - and the arrival of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York on Monday, the same day as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Vice-President Joe Biden, who predicted last week that the UN Security Council would agree on sanctions against Iran this week or next, perhaps knew something that was not obvious to anyone else. Late May or mid-June appears more likely, diplomats say.
While the six key negotiating nations -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- are talking almost daily, there is no sign that a draft resolution is ready. It has not been distributed to the full 15-member body. (Nine votes and no veto from the five permanent Security Council members are necessary for adoption).
So to unravel the basics: there is an agreement in principle, including from China, the most reluctant of the veto-holding Council members, that it is time for a fourth round of sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment and start negotiations on its suspect nuclear program. But China and at times Russia have raised objections to some of the tougher sanctions measures US Ambassador Susan Rice has put on the table.
The Western allies are considering a resolution that would impose a total arms embargo on Iran, restrict investment in Tehran's oil and gas sector and authorize the seizure of Iranian ships suspected of ferrying banned weapons and related materials.
Potential sanctions would also target individuals associated with arms programs run by the country's Revolutionary Guard Corps. The guards are increasing their hold on the Iranian economy as well as playing a leading role in brutally crushing any opposition.
On Monday, the UN holds the once-in-every-five years conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of global security pacts. The Iranian president will address the conference in the morning session and Mrs Clinton during the afternoon. According to UN protocol Ahmadinejad speaks early because he is the highest ranking official. Most other countries are sending foreign ministers who speak before three weeks of negotiations begin. (speakers list)
Iranian officials, meanwhile, have not just issued statements, with Ahmadinejad calling the veto rights of the big powers on the Security Council "satanic tools." But they have visited several Security Council member nations on their home turf, an indication Tehran was taking the threat of new sanctions seriously.
Iran earlier had rejected a proposal that called for France and Russia to enrich 1,200 kilograms of Tehran's uranium for use at a medical research reactor in Iran and thereby divert some fuel from potential bomb-making capacity. But on Sunday, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the International Atomic Energy Agency it was willing to try a new swap (perhaps with Brazil and Turkey?) but the terms appeared unacceptable to the West. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Brazil's President Lula da Silva, whose country has a seat on the Council and who has qualms about the sanctions, plans a visit to Tehran in mid-May, making it highly unlikely any resolution would be adopted before then.
Still, Ahmadinejad's appearance at the NPT conference will draw more attention to Iran's nuclear ambitions. But it might also detract from what the United States and other Western nations want: a plan to make it harder for states and militia to obtain technology that could lead to the production of nuclear weapons.
The NPT gives all signatories the right to nuclear power while banning them from getting or making atomic weapons. And the original five nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China--had to show they were moving towards disarmament (which the United States and Russia just did). However, India, Pakistan and Israel, all nuclear nations, are not signatories to the treaty and North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and tested nuclear devices in 2006 and again in 2009.
Egypt and other Arab nations are pushing for a resolution on a nuclear-free Middle East that would not only include Iran but Israel also, putting the Obama administration in a bind.
In 2005, the NPT conference failed to come to any conclusions. The big powers, especially the Bush administration, were accused of not moving fast enough towards disarmament. Secretary Clinton is bound to stress President Obama's recent deal with Russia that cut strategic arms and his policy of downgrading of the use of nuclear weapons.
But at the same time the expected stress on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy can be dangerous, with many countries wanting expensive reactors as the answer to renewable energy and global warming but with questionable abilities to ensure safety.
"In some perverse way, Iran made (nuclear energy) attractive," said Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who said last year that he had 60 queries from nations on his desk. "Nuclear power, in many ways got sexy."
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