Washington/United Nations: The senior US official responsible for handling the dispute over Iran's nuclear programme has admitted that the Bush administration is unlikely to resolve the issue, which until recently was seen as a possible cause of military confrontation between Washington and Tehran.
"I think this is going to be a drama that plays out well into 2009 and beyond," Nicholas Burns, US undersecretary of state, told the Council on Foreign Relations ahead of leaving office at the end of this month.
His comments indicated the dwindling expectations in Washington of either a US airstrike on Iran or an imminent breakthrough in negotiations. Sponsors of a third UN resolution hope to put it to the Security Council by today despite failure so far to persuade all 15 member states to accept the need for further measures against Iran.
Burns added: "There's plenty of room for this type of diplomacy, both sanctions as well as the positive offers of negotiations.
"That will continue, I'm quite sure, into the next administration."
Expectations of US military action against Iran have tumbled since the December National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) said Tehran had halted efforts to weaponise nuclear material in 2003. The US military itself had also previously voiced concerns about a possible military strike, which some analysts warn could escalate into a broader confrontation.
At the same time, the incremental imposition of UN sanctions has so far failed to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment inline with Security Council demands. Tehran says its nuclear programme is purely peaceful.
Burns said Iran's work on enrichment, which can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons grade material, was "outpacing" the sanctions, but expressed hope that a new UN sanctions resolution would be followed by tougher action from the European Union, middle eastern countries and elsewhere.
The UN's nuclear watchdog said Iran was still expand its enrichment activity. Sallai Meridor, Israel's ambassador to the United States, said Tehran's nuclear programme had made important progress over the past two years. "The writing is on the wall," he said, calling for UN and international action. "If they are not stopped we will leave our children with a nightmare."
Giadalla Ettalhi, Libya's envoy to the UN, said this week that his government would not support further sanctions on the basis of a proposed text issued by France and the UK last week and would likely vote against the resolution.
Western diplomats said South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam, all non-permanent members of the council with no right of veto, also had reservations.