WASHINGTON — With signs multiplying that international pressure is having an impact on Iran, the United Nations Security Council is moving toward adoption of a second resolution of sanctions targeting the country's nuclear program.
A vote could come early next week on a resolution that adds an arms-export embargo and more financial measures to sanctions adopted in December.
World powers led by the United States and Europe want to stop Iran from mastering the process that would allow it to build a nuclear weapon, although Tehran insists its nuclear program is limited to civilian uses and the peaceful production of energy.
While the international pressure shows no signs so far of deterring Iran's pursuit of highly enriched uranium, it is having an impact in the country – as some politicians, members of the business community, and others cast doubt on Iran's course. Backers of the sanctions hope that these internal doubts will eventually lead the Iranian leadership to return to the negotiating table.
"All you have to do is review the Iranian press to see the debate the sanctions have caused and the controversy over this growing sense of isolation the country is feeling," says Daniel Brumberg, an Iran expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "It's not just the reformists who are worried about this. It's apparent among sectors of the leadership as well."
The new resolution adds to a list of named individuals and companies whose assets will be frozen because of association with Iran's nuclear program. The resolution would also direct the UN's 192 member states to keep watch for any of the listed individuals traveling to their territory, according to UN officials.
The Security Council's unanimous vote on the first set of sanctions shocked the Iranian leadership and caused immediate public debate over the wisdom of the government's confrontation with the international community.
Since then, political moderates have publicly criticized a Tehran approach they fear could lead to economic and political isolation. Two moderate political parties have called on the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to accept a suspension of uranium enrichment in order to pursue a solution with the United Nations and avoid increased isolation.
The internal divisions surfaced again this week after Mr. Ahmadinejad suggested that he would like to appear before the Security Council to explain Iran's nuclear program. By Thursday, the leader was lambasting the Council over the second resolution and ridiculing its impact, but he was no longer publicly speaking of a visit to New York.
When asked if some Iranians were reluctant to see Ahmadinejad representing their country on the world stage, one Iranian official in New York said, "If you look at the different reactions in Iran to the president's proposal, you will get your answer." The official, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly, added, "Yes, there are divisions."
Even the country's most powerful leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has cast doubt on the wisdom of allowing the fiery Ahmadinejad to be Iran's face to the world. However, the supreme leader has dismissed any suspension of the uranium-enrichment program.
Going further, some Iranians say the very moment the US seems to have backed off from a confrontational approach to Tehran is not the time to send out the country's head antagonizer. In a much-watched move, the US accepted to sit at the same table with Iran at a Baghdad conference last week.
Ahmadinejad's critics say it's clear why he would propose visiting the Council in New York. He took the stage at the UN General Assembly as recently as last fall, to skewer what he calls Western and big-power efforts to keep developing countries subservient.
"The Iranians have had plenty of opportunities to talk to the UN about their nuclear developments if they are so anxious to do that," says Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington. "His [Ahmadinejad's] intention is to throw a monkey wrench in the works, engage the Russians and Chinese on his behalf, and put off further what is now long-overdue action by the Security Council."
What remains to be seen is whether the international pressure and the discomfiture in Iran's business and political circles will prompt the leadership to suspend uranium enrichment. Don't expect such a step soon, most experts say, even as new sanctions could be taking effect.
"We have to expect that this process is going to take awhile," Mr. Brumberg says, adding that there may be no breakthrough until after the next US presidential election.
"It's going to be hard for the Iranians to find a face-saving formula," especially as long as a US administration that is associated with "a confrontational regime-change approach" is in office, he says. Prospects for a diplomatic solution could improve through a combination of Iran's increasing isolation and a growing American consensus around "engagement backed up by the potential use of force," he adds. But such a solution won't come tomorrow.
"The economy is already being hurt, but it will have to be hurt more," Brumberg says. "And Ahmadinejad will have to realize there are only so many Venezuelas he can run to" for support.