Europe tightens the world's pincers on Iran with new sanctions

Iran sanctions agreed to by Europe significantly increase pressure on Iran to return to the nuclear negotiating table. But while talks are good, quick results are what matter.

After years of American complaints of European softness on sanctions against Iran, the European Union has discovered its spine.

Monday’s stiff restrictions related to Iranian banking, insurance, and – most critically – oil and gas add up to the EU’s most far-reaching sanctions against any country. They have received high praise from Washington. Canada also announced a new round of sanctions this week.

It’s important to remember, however, that sanctions against Iran are not an end in themselves. The whole point is to convince Iran to return to the nuclear negotiating table, and to produce results.

Not more foot-dragging. Not more deception. But a way for the international community to ensure that Iran is on a path to the peaceful use of nuclear technology (as it claims) and not to acquiring nuclear weaponry (as the West claims from intelligence sources).

The EU’s actions add considerable force to the world’s pincers on Iran, which relies on the EU as its No. 1 trade partner. They come after the United Nations Security Council approved a fourth round of sanctions in June, followed by additional unilateral sanctions passed by Congress later that month.

Europe’s restrictions, already put into practice, have had an effect. Reuters news agency reports that only three cargos of gasoline have reached Iran so far in July – two from Turkey and one from China. That’s far less traffic than normal. (Iran is the second largest oil exporter of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, but it must import 40 percent of its refined gasoline because it doesn’t have enough refining capacity).

Encouragingly, Iran has signaled its official interest in returning to talks. On Monday, its envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency submitted a letter going over its positions on a “fuel swap” – a framework that had been pursued last fall by the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, a group known as the P5-plus-1. The idea is for Iran to send its uranium out of the country for processing into a grade that, when returned to Iran, is suitable for use only in nuclear energy.

The envoy’s letter declared “complete readiness to hold negotiations ... without any conditions,” although Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent mixed messages about preconditions. Talks might begin in September. If they do, they must include a deadline, much the way President Obama extended the olive branch to Tehran for only a limited time.

The international community has shown remarkable solidarity in pressuring Iran. But the togetherness is not uniform.

Russia reacted angrily to the EU’s “unilateral” measures this week, complaining that they were outside the UN process. That, plus it feels it must walk a fine line with Iran, with which it has extensive diplomatic and commercial ties.

And yet, it, too, sounds fed up with Tehran. A statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry this week stated that “instead of sterile and irresponsible rhetoric Iran’s leadership ought to take concrete constructive steps towards the speediest settlement of the current situation.”

Another country worth watching: Turkey. This NATO ally is pursuing a policy of “zero problems” on its border, and in the course of deepening energy and business ties with neighbor Iran, is causing great consternation among its Western allies. It voted against Iranian sanctions in the Security Council (as one European diplomat complained: “Allies abstain; they don’t vote ‘no.’).

While the Turkish finance minister says Ankara will follow the UN restrictions, it does not feel obligated to support the EU’s additional actions.

In the weeks ahead, all eyes will be on Tehran to see if (a) it comes back to the negotiating table, and (b) it takes negotiations seriously. But others in the international community bear watching as well. Will Russia prove reliable? Will Turkey?

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