It once scoffed at the viability of international sanctions as a diplomatic tool. But the Bush administration, convinced that punitive financial measures played a role in moving North Korea to accept a deal designed to shut down its nuclear operations, is now spearheading a multilateral effort to use sanctions to turn the screws on Iran and its nuclear program.
Representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany are expected to begin work in New York this week on a second resolution of sanctions against Iran. The idea is to preserve Security Council unity – keeping Tehran's friends China and Russia on board – while ratcheting up the pressure on Iran.
"The administration is following a two-track approach on Iran – the threat of force [and] the pursuit of diplomacy – and the sanctions route does double duty within that approach," says Raymond Tanter, a former National Security Council official now at Georgetown University in Washington. "[The sanctions] are part of the coercive diplomacy side, but they are also part of the effort to maintain consensus among" the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.
The Bush administration says it's looking for a diplomatic solution but says it won't rule out any options to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
The new resolution, which officials say could reach a Security Council vote as early as the middle of the month, is expected to expand on and strengthen steps taken in a first resolution passed against Iran in late December. Senior officials from the six key countries discussed the contents of a second resolution in teleconference calls last Thursday and again Saturday, but they didn't come to agreement on all the points of a final text.
"This is going to be an incremental resolution," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday, referring to the ratcheting up of sanctions already in place.
Among the measures being considered, according to US and European officials, are expansion of the list of Iranian officials whose assets would be frozen, a travel ban on more Iranians who are involved in the country's nuclear research and development, and additions to the list of parts, material, and technology that would be banned from Iranian trade.
The United States also hopes to see further restrictions on export credits, or financial measures that encourage trade. European governments, among others, have provided these credits to companies trading with Iran. Moreover, the US wants to limit access that Iran's largest banks have to international markets.
But a proposal for an embargo on all arms trading with Tehran was dropped last week on Russian objections, officials said. Also scuttled was a ban on student visas for Iranians studying subjects such as nuclear physics.
Revived US interest in sanctions reflects two factors. First, the Bush administration, originally frustrated by the four months of wrangling it took to get the first resolution, which was regarded as relatively weak, took note of an almost immediate political impact in Tehran.
The resolution "has generally been a very effective mechanism by which to pressure the Iranian regime," added Mr. McCormack. The resolution has had an impact with financial and business institutions that don't like the uncertainty of dealing with a country under sanctions, he says.
Second, Washington has viewed sanctions against North Korea and UN condemnation of Pyongyang after it tested a nuclear weapon in October as having played a key role in bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table.
The Bush administration appears to have concluded that sanctions can play a part in modifying a country's actions, especially if they come in the context of a united international community that includes the country's key friends: China in the case of North Korea, China and Russia in the case of Iran.
Yet the case of Iran is complicated by the war in Iraq and the interests both the US and Iran have in Iraq. And analysts are divided on what international talks on Iraq, including both Iranian and American officials, might have on the nuclear issue. Some say the talks, which are set to commence this Saturday, are likely to deflate international pressure on Iran, while others believe progress on Iraq could move Iran toward a more accommodating position on its nuclear program.
The administration may have adopted a diplomacy-with-threats approach to Iran, but some analysts say the strategy confuses US partners and encourages the Iranians to focus on ways to exploit it.
"The Bush administration thinking seems to be that every successive resolution will be stronger and that combining that with the increased pressure of measures like a second aircraft carrier in the Gulf, you can pressure Iran into acquiescing," says Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations here.
"On the surface it's not an unintelligent blueprint," he adds, "but it doesn't seem to include an understanding of its impact on the Iranians. They can't comprehend the contradictions." To back up his point, Mr. Takeyh says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been talking about conditions for opening up trade with Tehran, while Treasury officials have been pressing the international community to cut off trade with Iran.
"You have the State Department saying maybe bilateral talks with Iran will occur as part of the international talks just announced on Iraq," he says, "and you have [White House spokesman] Tony Snow saying, 'No way will there be bilateral talks' " on the margins of Saturday's conference.
The first resolution on Iran "had an impact in Tehran," Takeyh agrees, but it yielded "more of a change in tone than a change in substance. They haven't changed their core policy of pursuing uranium enrichment and expanding their influence in the region."
Others agree that the US is demonstrating that it does not have a clear policy on Iran. Mr. Tanter, who is also founder of the Iran Policy Committee, a group in Washington that promotes regime change in Iran through action by Iranian dissidents, says the "two-pronged approach" should not be confused with a clear policy.
"The strategy is pretty clear, but the policy is vague," he says. "Is regime change on the table? The State Department says it's not, but the vice president [Dick Cheney] in so many words is saying it is."
The departure of hard-liner John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations, and the arrival in New York of President Bush's nominee, current US Ambassador in Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad, will "move regime change further off the table," Tanter says.
Meanwhile, in Vienna Monday, where the International Atomic Energy Agency was meeting, a 35-nation board of governors was expected to approve cuts to 22 of 55 IAEA technical-aid projects in Iran. That would follow the agency's review of Iran's compliance with the first resolution.
• Material from Reuters was used in this report.