What deals with Iran?

A growing number of countries are backing moves to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions. But with military action all but ruled out and the difficulty of imposing effective sanctions, their tools appear few and flawed. The main threat for now is referral to the Security Council. But Iran was defiant Friday, vowing to further limit international monitoring of its nuclear activities if hauled before the United Nations. It was left to some of Tehran's main critics to tone down the confrontation, with officials from France and Germany saying it was too early to speak of sanctions. That stance appeared to be a recognition of the lack of unity among the Security Council's five veto-carrying members, as well as doubts about the effectiveness of economic sanctions given the world's thirst for oil.

The United States, the key backer of harsh sanctions against Iran which it says wants to make nuclear arms can count on Britain to back it within the Security Council. France, too, may go along out of frustration with two years of trying and failing to persuade Tehran to give up uranium enrichment, a possible pathway to nuclear arms. But veto-wielding council members Russia and China could prove hard to persuade.

Iran buys most of its weapons from Moscow and Beijing. Russia has nearly completed work on Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor and is the key contractor for Tehran's plans to build more. China is making energy deals with Iran it owns a 50-percent stake in its sprawling Yadavaran oil fields and has contracted for 250 million tons of Iranian liquefied natural gas worth an estimated US$70 billion (Ђ58.5 billion)

Moscow has toughened its tone with Iran since it resumed uranium conversion on Tuesday. Still, Alexei Malashenko, a researcher with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office, dismissed the new stance as a political gesture to its Western allies.

"Russia will never give up its cooperation with Tehran," he told the daily Vremya Novostei. And with China normally going where Russia has gone, it too is likely to be opposed to tough sanctions.

Beijing "will watch Russia very carefully because it is still influenced by what it does in this sphere," said Andrew Yang, senior analyst at the Taipei-based Chinese Center for Advanced Policy Studies. But even if all five overcome differences and agree on the need for sanctions, the question of how to punish Iran is difficult, reports the AP. N.U.