WASHINGTON – The Bush administration agreed Monday to hold off trying to punish Iran (search) to give the country time to keep a promise to freeze all programs linked to enrichment of uranium, a key ingredient in a suspected nuclear weapons program.
"We will see, as time goes by, if they are now finally going to comply in full," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in backing the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency's acceptance of Iran's latest pledge.
"Iran has time and time again deceived and denied, deceived the international community," McClellan said.
Even while going along with the International Atomic Energy Agency (search), the administration did not back away from its suspicions about Iran's activities and pledges.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said past violations by Iran justified having the U.N. Security Council consider action against Tehran.
The administration tried that approach before but did not have the votes on the council to ensure application of economic or diplomatic sanctions. In the meantime, Britain, France and Germany offered Iran trade and other benefits if it would stop producing enriched uranium.
With terms still to be sealed next month, the IAEA accepted Iran's promise on Monday, and the administration fell in line even while accusing Iran of representing a "growing threat to peace and security."
"There is a verification process in place, and we expect Iran to fully comply with commitments," McClellan said.
Boucher contended Iran had given way to international pressure, forcing it to agree to suspend enrichment of uranium to further its nuclear weapons program.
He said the administration might have preferred that the U.N. agency take the dispute to the Security Council. The United States went along with the agency's decision, however, because its chief, Mohamed ElBaradei (search), reported that Iran was implementing its agreement with the European countries to suspend all processes related to enriching uranium.
It is up to the agency to continue its investigation, Boucher said.
Robert Einhorn, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search) think tank, said the administration had adopted a wait-and-see approach because it lacked the votes to punish Iran in the Security Council. Additionally, he said, the administration was going to be heavily focused on elections in Iraq.
"It doesn't want to have a crisis over Iran at this stage," the former State Department official said in an interview.
If the deal with the Europeans were to slow down Iran's enrichment program, Einhorn said, that would be a good result, "and the administration will not have had to get its hands dirty by talking to Iran directly or by making concessions."
Cliff Kupchan, vice president of the Nixon Center (search), said, "The only way out of this is a diplomatic solution. A military option holds little promise."
Kupchan, an Iran expert, said sanctions would not work because China had threatened a veto in the Security Council, and a boycott of Iranian oil stood a very small chance of approval because of high demands for oil worldwide.
"The administration has been increasingly disposed toward giving diplomacy a chance, which could point to a major policy change," Kupchan said in an interview.
"I think both sides realize the only way back from the abyss is to find a deal both sides can live with; if uneasily, but live with," he said.