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The Showdown With Iran

The world continues to inch closer toward a showdown wtih Iran over its nuclear program, and this week is perhaps the most crucial yet. The 35-member board of the IAEA is meeting this week in Vienna, and Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei said he expects to take up the issue of Iran on Tuesday or Wednesday, at which time the body will vote whether or not to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.

ElBaradei says he remains "hopeful" that an agreement can be reached this week to avoid a referral, but since Iran has already rejected a deal with Russia (backed by the U.S. and Europe) that could have avoided a showdown, a last-minute deal doesn't seem too likely unless both the Russians and the Chinese (both hold veto power in the UNSC) bring serious pressure to bear on Iran - something neither has been willing to do so far.

Meanwhile, Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, threatened that Iran would resume full scale enrichment and retaliate economically if referred to the UNSC:

"If we are referred to the Security Council, problems might occur for others as well as us. We would not like to use our oil as a weapon. We would not like to make other countries suffer."

On Saturday, The Washington Post outlined the Bush administration's plan to push the UNSC to commit to issuing a 30-day deadline for Iran to halt its enrichment program before moving ahead with sanctions:

"The idea is to begin slowly, with a presidential statement, set timetables and then give Iran a certain deadline to respond," one senior U.S. official said. "After that we push harder with a resolution."

But the administration has also been issuing warnings of its own to Iran. In widely reported remarks this weeked at the AIPAC conference U.S. Ambassador John Bolton warned of "tangible and painful consequences" for Iran if it doesn't acquiesce to international demands. Today The Guardian reports that Bolton offered an even more frank assessment of the situation with Iran to a delegation of British MPs visiting Washington last week:

However the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, visiting Washington last week, encountered sharply different views within the Bush administration. The most hawkish came from Mr Bolton. According to Eric Illsley, a Labour committee member, the envoy told the MPs: "They must know everything is on the table and they must understand what that means. We can hit different points along the line. You only have to take out one part of their nuclear operation to take the whole thing down."

Bolton's remarks come on the heels of another interesting revelation: the Sunday Times reported yesterday that Israeli special forces are currently operating inside Iran - with the support of the U.S. - trying to pinpoint locations where uranium enrichment is taking place, suggesting that preparations for a military strike are well under way.

As difficult and inflammatory as a military strike against Iran would be, it is a very real option and, depending on what happens this week, could be one of the few remaining options left. As John Bolton said this weekend, "The longer we wait to confront the threat Iran poses, the harder and more intractable it will become to solve."