The United Nations Security Council resolution targeting Iran's nuclear program may not impede Tehran from moving closer to building a bomb, but it does guarantee one thing: Iran will remain the focus of international diplomacy in 2007.
With the considerably weakened but unanimously approved resolution calling for further action within 60 days if Iran does not cease its uranium enrichment activities, the measure all but sets a date for the return of Iran to the top of the Security Council's docket. This is especially true after Tehran vowed this week to step up enrichment.
But even minimal sanctions offer the United States and the European Union (EU) a platform from which to reinforce separate international efforts to stop Iran before it builds a bomb, some experts say.
"The sanctions approved in this [resolution] may not offer much; no one expects Iran to suspend enrichment immediately," says Lee Feinstein, an expert in international negotiations at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "But it is an opportunity for the US and the EU to take the lead again in dealing with Iran and to go for tougher sanctions outside the Security Council."
As one example of where that tougher action might begin, the US Treasury Department says it will pursue increased financial restrictions with other countries that have international dealings with Iran. The US believes that this kind of action has had an impact on North Korea and could influence Tehran to return to international negotiations on its nuclear program.
The UN resolution, which essentially targets a list of Iranian companies involved in the uranium-enrichment program, is seen by some Western leaders and experts as an important diplomatic "first step" to show the Iranians that opposition to their nuclear program is seamless.
"From the Western and American point of view, this is the most that could be hoped for while keeping Russia and China on board, and it does send a clear signal that the international community is not going to just let this go away," says Alex Vatanka, Iran analyst at Jane's Information Group in Alexandria, Va. "There's a promise that tougher measures could follow, so in that sense it will be important to watch not just Iran's rhetorical responses but the actions on the ground."
But critics say the measure takes so much off the table of negotiations with Iran that it makes almost meaningless any talk of tougher measures later – and may in fact hasten the day when the United States feels obligated to move to more extreme action by a "coalition of the willing," such as a naval blockade of Iranian ports or bombing of nuclear facilities.
"They got the council unanimity they wanted, but at what price?" asks Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a nonprofit group in Washington. "So much has been grandfathered and exempted [by the resolution] that what can be looked at in 60 days won't be that interesting."
For example: the large nuclear power plant Russia is building in Bushehr, Iran, is exempt from the resolution's freeze on financial and technological assistance to key parts of Iran's nuclear industry..
The international community is essentially left with a "raffle ticket," Mr. Sokolski says, and can only "wait and see" how Iran responds. But if Tehran follows through on its promise to move ahead with enrichment, he adds, the day of essentially unilateral action by the US could be moving closer.
"It's not impossible to be tougher diplomatically after this [resolution] but it's harder," he says. "Russia and China have made it clear where they won't go, so that could push others, and that essentially means the US, to take action that most people would like to avoid."
An expert in the nuclear fission process, Sokolski says the UN resolution may actually move Tehran closer to building a bomb by "grandfathering from action" the Bushehr plant that could supply the fuel for the enrichment process. "If [the Iranians] are able to secretly divert more highly enriched fuel from that plant, and there are ways of doing it, then the effort remaining to build a bomb becomes a matter of weeks instead of months and months." Most official US estimates put Iran at least four years away from developing a bomb.
The Security Council's action has already raised tensions.
On Tuesday, world oil prices shot up in response to the resolution's passage and to a repeat of longstanding Iranian threats to use the oil card – say, a slowdown in delivery of oil exports – as punishment for efforts to restrict a nuclear program that Tehran says is its internationally guaranteed right.
At the same time, the US was reporting the detention of two Iranians in Iraq (and the release of two others with diplomatic immunity). It called the arrests "validation" of claims of "Iranian meddling" in Iraq.
Jane's analyst Mr. Vatanka says the US may be signaling to Iran that it is not beholden to it and does not plan to cede any room on Iranian involvement in Iraq in exchange for cooperation on the nuclear issue. The US may be using the detentions to squelch speculation that it is moving towards engagement with Iran as a way to address regional issues.
"This may really be saying, 'Forget the Iraq Study Group, we're going in a different direction,'" says Vatanka, referring to the recent commission report.
But he adds that it will be important to watch the domestic impact of passage of the UN resolution. "The Iranian leadership may be talking tough, but it's clear the Iranian people don't want further isolation from the rest of the world, so prospects for even tougher sanctions could have an influence," Vatanka says.
Iran's economic woes provide the context for a new report by the National Academy of Sciences that says Iran is already suffering from a steep decline in oil exports and could see them fall further to virtually zero within a decade.
The UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Saturday to impose sanctions on Iran for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
What it does: UN Security Council Resolution 1737 requires that countries freeze the financial assets of 10 Iranian organizations and companies and 12 individuals associated with Tehran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Exemptions: Contracts made prior to the adoption of the resolution, such as Russia's construction of a $800 million light-water reactor for Tehran, are exempt.
What's next: Sanctions can be suspended if Iran halts its uranium work and the country is willing to return to negotiations. Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is due to report 60 days after the resolution's adoption. Or, sanctions can be lifted if Iran honors all Security Council and IAEA directives.
More punitive measures will be considered if Iran does not comply.
Iran's reaction: The Islamic republic has continued to state it will pursue a nuclear program.
– Compiled from wire reports by Leigh Montgomery