Face-off with Iran takes tougher turn
From the United Nations in New York to the Shatt al-Arab waterway that splits southern Iran and Iraq, the ongoing row over Iran's nuclear program turned decidedly more confrontational over the weekend.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The UN Security Council Saturday unanimously agreed to widen economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic, taking aim at the country's arms exports, state bank, and its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But new UN demands to suspend uranium enrichment are prompting more belligerence from Iran, as the country appears to be shifting its policy of avoiding confrontation to "following their traditional aggressive policies [pursued since the] Islamic revolution" of 1979, says Saeed Leylaz, an independent analyst in Tehran.
Signaling that it will not be bullied, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized 15 British sailors and marines that Tehran says were engaged in "blatant aggression" inside its waters on Friday along its disputed riverine border with Iraq. Britain denies that its crews entered Iranian waters.
While the new UN resolution is far weaker than what the US, Britain, and France first proposed, it "is a very big step toward surrounding [Iran]. The US is going step by step to surround the country militarily, economically, and politically," says Mr. Leylaz. "They are surrounding us, and [so] the British sailors have been arrested because Iran is trying to warn Western countries that it will perceive these new sanctions as enemy [actions]."
Measures of the sanctions vote reach beyond Iran's nuclear program, and are directed at individuals and the Revolutionary Guard Corps – the powerful, ideological force separate from the regular army – to limit Iran's growing influence across the region.
Washington is trying to "change the actions and behavior" of Iran, Nicholas Burns, the US under secretary of State for political affairs, told The New York Times. "And so the sanctions are immediately focused on the nuclear weapons research program, but we also are trying to limit the ability of Iran to be a disruptive and violent factor in Middle East politics."
Iran's reaction was given in New York by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, in lieu of a planned visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Tehran claimed that the US "deliberately" failed to issue visas on time for the president's flight crew, a charge US officials deny.
"The world must know – and it does – that even the harshest sanctions and other threats are far too weak to coerce the Iranian people to retreat from their legal and legitimate demands," Mr. Mottaki told the council. "I can assure you that pressure and intimidation will not change Iranian policy," Mottaki said, adding that suspension of nuclear work was "neither an option nor a solution."
As a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is permitted to develop peaceful nuclear technology, which includes the complete nuclear fuel cycle. But outstanding issues remain, which have so far prevented UN nuclear inspectors from confirming that Iran's program is peaceful. Key Western powers, led by the US, accuse Iran of using its stated quest for nuclear fuel expertise as a cover for a weapons program. They note that mastering these peaceful processes would give Iran the capability to step over the "threshold" and pursue atomic bombs.
"This resolution sends an unambiguous signal to the government and people of Iran ... that the path of nuclear proliferation by Iran is not one that the international community can accept," said Emyr Jones Parry, the British ambassador to the UN.
Even as the UN vote was taken, the circumstances and location of the British sailors and Royal Marines remained unclear. Their detention echoed a similar incident in 2004, when eight British sailors were picked up, subjected to mock executions, and held for three days after straying into Iranian waters.
Iranian officials say the Britons have "confessed." But the political situation could not be more different today, with both sides in the "Iran versus the West" struggle looking for strategic advantage.