Punish Iran for its nuclear secrecy? How sanctions could work.

The UN's nuclear watchdog is set to rebuke Iran over its nuclear program. No sanctions are planned, but the US will keep pushing, and some experts say diplomacy could still work. 

Herwig Prammer/REUTERS
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano attends a news conference during a board of governors meeting at the UN headquarters in Vienna Thursday.

World powers including the United States appear poised to issue a strong rebuke to Iran over its refusal to clarify the intentions of its nuclear program.

The strongly worded critique of Tehran is expected Friday at the close of a meeting of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency. It will carry the support of both China and Russia, and will thus satisfy one American objective in dealing with Iran: that the international community stand united in pressuring Iran to come clean on the aims of its nuclear activities.

What the anticipated resolution holds in terms of strong rhetoric, however, it lacks in teeth. The draft text, divulged by diplomats participating in the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors, calls on Tehran to comply with its obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to agree to negotiations on its nuclear program.

But the text does not call for new international sanctions on Iran, nor does it set any deadline for Tehran to agree to negotiations or to open up on its nuclear program.

The result is that US and other Western powers will likely press forward on further actions, some experts say.

“We can expect the US and its allies on this issue to use this IAEA statement to seek some type of additional measures on Iran,” says Kenneth Katzman, a Persian Gulf and nuclear issues expert at the Congressional Research Service in Washington.

He rejects the notion that Russia, China, and other members of the IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors will expect pressure on Iran to remain limited to the agency’s new statement. “They know what their vote means, they know the US and its allies are going to demand some sort of meaningful response,” Mr. Katzman adds.

The IAEA statement follows a report issued by the agency last week, which laid out evidence that Iran continues to assemble the building blocks for developing and delivering a nuclear weapon. That report led to heightened speculation that Israel, unwilling to wait on the international community, is moving ahead with planning for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations.

But some Iran experts say there are still untried options short of military action that could work to dissuade Iran from its nuclear ambitions. “There’s still some ground to plow out there,” says Katzman.

Among the possible measures: sanctions on Iran’s central bank, additional measures against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and travel bans on more Iranian officials.

In the US Senate, 92 senators have already called on President Obama to impose sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran. On Thursday, Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois filed an amendment targeting Iran’s central bank to a defense authorization bill.

The Kirk amendment, which mirrors legislation passed unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would freeze US-based assets of foreign financial institutions that have dealings with Iran’s central bank.

It seems unlikely that Russia and China, which have recently reiterated their opposition to additional sanctions on Iran, would go along with action against Iran’s central bank. But Katzman says it would be wrong to assume that the two UN Security Council powers will continue to insist that no additional action be taken.

For one thing, he says both powers are invested in the Security Council as an internationally powerful institution, and neither of them “wants to see the institution mocked.”

Second, he says both Russia and China have “red lines” they don’t want crossed, but that further action that respects those limitations is possible.

For both Russia and China, sanctions should be limited to targeting Iran’s nuclear program and should not hurt the broad Iranian population, Katzman says.

“The second red line is they don’t want to do anything that could be interpreted as license for military action.” Referring to Security Council action earlier this year on Libya that NATO interpreted as an open door to intervention, he adds: “They feel they’ve been burned on this in the recent past.”

Some in the US are moving forward on proposals that suggest a desire for action against Iran to be as multilateral as possible. For example, Senator Kirk is including in his amendment a six-month exemption on oil transactions in an effort of ease concerns of US allies – and of the international oil market.

The Obama administration maintains it is still pursuing a two-channel approach to Iran’s nuclear program: dialogue on one hand and, on the other, tightening the screws to convince Tehran that the international community is serious about preventing it from developing a bomb.

Most US-Iran experts say an election year, especially one with Republican candidates dismissing the prospects of diplomacy, is unlikely to produce any US-Iran diplomatic breakthroughs.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, says election politics means Mr. Obama will face intense pressure to be hawkish on Iran. But Obama's 2009 overtures to Iran only scratched the surface, says Mr. Parsi, author of “A Single Roll of the Dice,” a book on Obama’s stab at diplomacy with Iran.

Many nuclear experts insist that military action against Iran would likely reinforce Tehran’s determination to become a nuclear power. Parsi says tough diplomacy remains the only option for the US to achieve its goals concerning Iran – but he also doubts that an election year will provide the space for that diplomacy to take place.

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