International powers have agreed on the outline of a third United Nations resolution sanctioning Iran for its pursuit of uranium enrichment – a sign that, despite disagreements on details, the international community is united in opposition to Iran possessing a nuclear weapon.
A recent American intelligence report, concluding that Iran stopped a nuclear weapons development program in 2003, appears to have actually opened the door to additional international economic measures against Tehran.
December's National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, initially confused US allies, who saw the report as undercutting multilateral efforts to pressure Iran. But this week's agreement on the terms of a new resolution suggests that the NIE also deflated widespread concerns that the United States was heading toward unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear sites. With concerns waning that the US would use additional UN measures as a pretext for such action, some diplomats say, the path to a new resolution was cleared.
Official response in Tehran to the international action was swift, with officials saying Iran would not be deterred in its nuclear pursuits – including uranium enrichment, which can be a steppingstone to building a nuclear weapon.
"The Iranian nation has chosen its path and will continue with it," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by the student news agency ISNA. "Such illegal behavior [by the international community] will not divert the Iranian nation from its path."
The five members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, reached the agreement Tuesday at a meeting in Berlin of foreign ministers that included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The new resolution is not expected to significantly toughen economic sanctions already approved in the first two resolutions.
Expected measures include a travel ban on some key Iranian individuals, limits on businesses and military branches involved in certain nuclear activities, and the monitoring of banks and other institutions implicated in Iran's nuclear program.
The resolution is considerably weaker than what the US and allies, including France and Britain, had sought in recent months. But some ambitious monitoring by international powers would actually be new and could build up the kind of pressure that Iran has shown it does not like, some experts say.
Michael Jacobson, an expert in counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that although the new resolution does not appear to include the kind of monitoring measures that would be most effective, he still believes stepped-up monitoring of the sanctions already approved against Iran would serve a useful purpose.
"What the NIE suggests is that the Iranians make their decisions, including on their nuclear program, on a cost-benefit basis, and that international pressure on them can have an impact," Mr. Jacobson says. The NIE concluded that Iran ceased its nuclear weapons program in 2003 as a result of international scrutiny and pressure.
The most effective action would be to set up an independent monitoring team, as the UN has done in other cases of sanctions, including those against Sudan and Somalia, Jacobson says. Until now, reporting on Iran's compliance with approved sanctions has been carried out by individual countries and has not been mandatory in all cases.
The reinvigorated drive for a third resolution comes amid confusion caused by a report from the Government Accountability Office that says 20 years of US sanctions against Iran have been largely useless. Some experts strongly disagree with the report's findings, saying more recent sanctions that have specifically targeted Iranian institutions and individuals have had an impact on the country's actions.
In any case, Jacobson says a third resolution would be useful as a signal to Iran of continuing international vigilance and unity. "It still sends a symbolic message to Iran, particularly with Russia and China joining in. And it's better than the alternative," he adds, "that Iran sees the Security Council is paralyzed and unable to move forward."
In addition, the Security Council may prompt more dogged action on its sanctions simply by passing a third resolution and demonstrating determination, Jacobson says. He notes that efforts within the European Union to toughen sanctions on Iran have been held up by some countries, such as Germany, that were waiting to see what the Security Council would do.
Indeed, one senior European official says that Germany in particular had been reluctant to press ahead on new sanctions – but had felt ready to move forward after the NIE. The report "has helped Germany to go along with a resolution, and not just the Germans," says the official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal diplomatic talks. The official says that, in the end, the new resolution may not pass until well into February – and even then may be only a "clear political statement, [but] you must admit the Iranians don't like that very much."
Iranian officials may be particularly sensitive to any sign of new international pressures, as the country is to hold parliamentary elections in March.
Experts say there is no guarantee of how another resolution would be received by the Iranian public, with the country's conservative leadership expected to play the us-versus-the-world card. But the European official says the hope among Western powers, at least, would be to "help Iran's moderates make their case" that the country's "radicals" are isolating Iran.