On Friday, the IAEA voted overwhelmingly to censure Iran for its uranium enrichment activities, including what they consider a the illegal construction of a secret enrichment plant near Qom. The 25-3 vote for censure included not only Western powers but China and Russia, which have been reluctant to impose sanctions or penalties on Iran. The censure said that Iran was in violation of treaty obligations for their failure to allow inspectors to visit enrichment sites. And it implied a stronger line with Iran in the future, if not economic sanctions.

Iran will face a “package of consequences” if it does not soon become a “willing partner” in talks on its nuclear ambitions, a senior U.S. official warned, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We hope Iran takes note of that clear message.” [...]

In devising additional means of pressuring Iran, U.S. officials are focused on making it difficult for Iranian companies to ship goods. They are thus targeting insurance and reinsurance companies that underwrite the risk of such transactions, especially businesses that help support Iran’s military elite. Such measures would build on an approach initiated by the Bush administration and by three sets of existing U.N. sanctions against Iran.

“Nothing that we contemplate or that we would consider is aimed at causing greater harm for the Iranian people, who have suffered enough,” the U.S. official said.

The White House statement on the vote certainly pointed toward a harder line as well, while leaving open possibilities for engagement which have been mostly spurned by the Iranian regime.

The response inside Iran has not been positive. One official intimated that Iran could pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to which it is a co-signer, and Sunday the regime announced a plan to build ten new uranium enrichment sites.

The government told the Iranian nuclear agency to begin work on five sites, with five more to be located over the next two months.

It comes days after the UN nuclear watchdog rebuked Iran for covering up a uranium enrichment plant.

This is a defiant action that could absolutely escalate the tension between Iran and the West.

When looking for the best analysis of this situation, I turned to Juan Cole, who had some very good insights. First, he noted that Brazil abstained from the vote and China was basically bullied into it when America floated a “doomsday scenario” of Israel bombing Iran. The “BRIC” states (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are still reluctant to sanction Iran because of their desire to exploit Iranian oil resources. So sanctions may not be in the cards.

Cole also theorized that Iran may be trying to have it both ways:

My own position is that, in addition, Iran’s leadership is seeking whatis sometimes called the “Japan option” or a “rapid breakout capability.” Unlike North Korea, India and Pakistan, I think Tehran genuinely does not want to actually construct and detonate a nuclear device. India and Pakistan are such large and important countries that they defied the First World nuclear club successfully and so joined it. North Korea, much smaller, weaker and poorer, has made itself an international pariah in this way, and is suffering more and more severe UN sanctions. I think most senior Iranian leaders wish to avoid those heavy sanctions, having seen what they did to Iraq.

But having a rapid breakout capability– being able to make a bomb in short order if it is felt absolutely necessary to forestall a foreign attack– has a deterrent effect. So Iran would have the advantages of deterrence without the disadvantages of a bomb if it could get to the rapid breakout stage.

My theory has the advantage of explaining everything about Iran’s behavior– its condemnation of the Bomb as incompatible with Islamic law, its willingness to offer fair cooperation with UN inspectors, the repeated inability of US intelligence and of the IAEA to find any trace of a weapons program, and yet Iran’s frustrating lack of complete transparency and its penchant for building secret enrichment sites. You can’t retain a credible rapid breakout capability, or “nuclear latency,” if your enrichment facility can be destroyed by air strikes. Repeated Cheneyite and Israeli threats to attack the enrichment plant at Natanz near Isfahan are what I believe drove Iran to construct the Fordo site inside a mountain, in hopes that this step would make it impossible for an outside power to use military might to wipe out Iran’s nuclear latency.

Iran tentatively bought into a deal that would have sent their uranium to Russia for processing, which would have delayed any weapons-making capability for Iran. But Cole thinks that:

When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative brought this deal back to Tehran, I believe that the IRGC commanders vetoed it because they want to retain a rapid break out potential and did not want the LEU seed stock to be lost.

That the hawks were able to veto the representative of Supreme Leader Khamenei lends credence to Gary Sick’s argument that the Revolutionary Guards have carried out a soft coup behind the scenes and Iran looks more and more like a military junta.

There’s probably still space for a deal that would ease the escalating tension and lead toward a solution, but it’s closing rapidly. Iran is a lower-order national security threat that has been hyped through the Bush era and now represents some kind of bright line for the West. The feeling of crisis is not warranted, but it’s where we are at. And the increasing hardline stance both in Tehran and Western capitals could spark an unnecessary action.