Obama says sanctions are 'next step' for Iran

President Obama said Tuesday the international community is working on a 'significant regime of sanctions,' after Iran announced that it had begun a program to enrich uranium at a higher level of purity.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Barack Obama gives an impromptu news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington Tuesday.

President Obama said Tuesday the international community was working to draw up a “significant regime of sanctions” against Iran after concluding that Tehran is not serious about meeting UN demands on halting its program of enriching uranium.

In recent weeks, the White House has been circulating a number of proposed sanctions among UN Security Council members that aim to isolate Tehran over its refusal to end what may be the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium.

The effort gained steam after Iran declared Tuesday that it had begun enriching uranium at a higher level of purity – raising questions about the possibility that it was taking further steps toward developing a nuclear weapons program.

“If you want to accept the kinds of agreements with the international community that lead you down a path of being a member of good standing, then we welcome you,” Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House, referring to the Iranian leadership. “If not, then the next step is sanctions.”

Obama acknowledged that “the door is still open” for diplomacy with Iran.

But his comments Tuesday suggested the White House is moving closer to a sanctions-based approach after feeling rebuffed by Iran. Obama entered office pledging to work diplomatically with the oftentimes inscrutable Iranian leadership.

Iran ostensibly pledged to accept a deal, offered by the UN Security Council and Germany, that would have required Iran to give over its stockpile of uranium to process outside the country, say in Russia or France, at a level suitable for medical research and hospitals but not weaponry.

Just days ago, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had said Iran would accept that US-backed proposal, but American officials are wary. Iran’s public comments do not appear to jibe with their more private dealings with the international community or with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.

And today, Iranian state media reported that Tehran has begun to enrich uranium at a grade higher than for just medical research.

“The reality is that they have done nothing to reassure the international community that they are prepared to … stop their progress toward making a nuclear weapon,” US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters traveling with him in Europe over the weekend. He has said the United Nations should move forward with sanctions in "weeks, not months."

Over the next month, the UN Security Council will likely settle on a list of sanctions that could range from international financial pressure to shipping transactions to even limitations on travel for members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, says Jon Alterman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

But such sanctions do not end the possibility of diplomacy, he says. “The purpose of the sanctions is to change the behavior of the Iranian government, potentially leaning toward engagement,” says Mr. Alterman. “The whole point is not to be spiteful and punitive, but to change the behavior.”

The five permanent members of the Security Council – China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the US, along with Germany – the so-called “P5 plus one” could vote within the next month. China remains a holdout, but may decide to abstain from a vote instead of vetoing sanctions.

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