As US President Barack Obama faces pressure to back up his year-end ultimatum for diplomatic progress with Iran, reports yesterday said strong and immediate new sanctions would initiate the latest phase in a strategy to force Iran to comply with UN demands to halt production of nuclear fuel.
The sanctions proposal comes as the administration has completed a fresh review of Iran's nuclear progress.
Mr Obama's strategists believe Iran's top political and military leaders were distracted in recent months by turmoil in the streets and political infighting, and that their drive to produce nuclear fuel appears to have faltered, officials told The New York Times.
The White House wants to focus the new sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps believed to run the nuclear weapons effort.
Although repeated rounds of sanctions over many years have not dissuaded Iran from pursuing nuclear technology, a US administration official involved in the Iran policy said the hope was that the current troubles "give us a window to impose the first sanctions that may make the Iranians think the nuclear program isn't worth the price tag", the paper noted.
The Obama administration officials said they believed Iran's bomb-development effort was seriously derailed by the exposure three months ago of the country's secret enrichment plant under construction near the holy city of Qom. Exposure of the site deprived Iran of its best chance of covertly producing the highly enriched uranium needed to make fuel for nuclear weapons.
As well, international nuclear inspectors report that at Iran's plant in Natanz, where thousands of centrifuges spin to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel, the number of the machines operating has dropped by 20 per cent since the northern summer, a decline that nuclear experts attribute to technical problems.
Others, including some European officials, believe the problems may have been accentuated by a series of covert efforts by the West to undermine Iran's program, including sabotage on its imported equipment and infrastructure. These factors have led the Obama administration's policymakers to lengthen their estimate of how long it would take Iran to accomplish what nuclear experts call "covert breakout" -- the ability to secretly produce a workable weapon.
"For now, the Iranians don't have a credible breakout option, and we don't think they will have one for at least 18 months, maybe two or three years," the paper quotes one senior administration official as saying.
The administration has told allies that the longer time frame would allow the sanctions to have an effect before Iran could develop to the full its nuclear ability.