The passage this week by the United Nations Security Council of a third set of sanctions against Iran places a spotlight on two trends in the international community's dispute with Tehran's nuclear program.
Perhaps most striking is the relative retreat by the United States from leading status among Iran's accusers, with European powers taking over the helm.
But there is also an emerging rift between some of the world's developing countries and the big developed powers at the forefront of the effort to impose punitive measures against Tehran. For countries like Indonesia, South Africa, and Libya, which questioned the timing of the new resolution, Iran's claim of victimhood at the hands of arrogant world powers seeking to control access to vital and lucrative technologies may be starting to resonate.
The mixed views of some developing countries were reflected in the Council vote. At 14 yeas and one abstention, it marked a retreat from the unanimous vote achieved on the second Iran resolution, which was approved last year. (The first resolution, approved in 2006, passed on a 14-to-1 vote, with Qatar voting "no.")
The abstention Monday came from Indonesia. In a Western-powers push at the end of last week to avoid other abstentions or "no" votes, language noting Iran's cooperation on the nuclear issue over recent months was added at the insistence of other developing countries.
"South Africa does not want to see [either] a nuclear Iran or a country denied peaceful technology," said Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa's ambassador to the UN, in a postvote statement. Ambassador Kumalo said South Africa, which once threatened to vote "no" or abstain, voted "yes" based on Iran's failure to comply with earlier resolutions.
But reflecting the view of other rotating Council members, including Vietnam and Indonesia, Kumalo said South Africa would have preferred to put off the vote and leave further deliberations on the Iranian nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog.
In a statement, Iran played to concerns of developing countries that the world's developed powers seek to prolong their control of top lucrative technologies. "No country … can solely rely on others to provide it with the technology and materials that are becoming so vital for its development and for the welfare of its people," said Mohammad Khazaee, Iran's ambassador to the UN. "Peoples across the globe have lost their trust in the Security Council" and see it as the work of "a few powers to advance their own agenda," he added.
The months-long debate over the merits of a third resolution, and the way in which the resolution was watered down to achieve passage, suggest the degree to which developing countries fear that the UN process could lead to military strikes against Iran.
Indonesia's ambassador to the UN, R.M. Marty Natalegawa, said it abstained to express how the resolution did not reflect the "mixed picture" of Iran's cooperation with international agencies. The resolution risks rendering Iran even less cooperative with the IAEA, he said.
The Security Council passed the third set of sanctions against Iran over its pursuit of uranium enrichment, a process the international community fears could lead to development of a nuclear weapon. In response, a defiant Iran promised to press forward with its nuclear program, including uranium enrichment. Iran "cannot and will not accept a requirement which is legally defective and politically coercive," Ambassador Khazaee said in a speech to the Council before the vote.
The resolution is considered an "incremental" increase in pressure on Tehran to halt its enrichment program, according to US officials. It is not expected to force a quick change of heart by Iran.
Yet there has been a shift of sorts in the international community: Recent diplomatic efforts concerning Iran's nuclear program reflect how the lead in pursuing punitive measures has been largely taken over by European countries.
Western powers have long agreed to play down the US role in the pressure on Iran, some analysts note, to avoid the appearances of a duel between longtime antagonists. "They want to emphasize that it's not the US versus Iran," says Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
But there are other reasons the Europeans are stepping up to the plate more emphatically, analysts say.
One is a matter of urgency mixed with proximity. Documents unveiled last week at the IAEA suggest that Iran, at least at one point, was seeking to build a nuclear warhead. With Iran also developing a long-range missile capable of reaching continental Europe, France and Germany want to avoid a world where they would fall within Iranian nuclear range.
In a statement following the vote on behalf of the foreign ministers of the Britain, France, Germany, the US, China, and Russia, Britain's ambassador to the UN, Sir John Sawers, said the resolution reflects the "ongoing serious concerns about the proliferation risks of the Iranian nuclear program."
The US role in efforts to pressure Iran has also been muddied by the National Intelligence Estimate, publicly released last December. The report concluded that Iran suspended its nuclear weaponization program in 2003. The intelligence estimate confused many countries about the US position and has led to divisions among US agencies and within the White House, some analysts say.
Those internal divisions have only put more emphasis on Europe's leadership role. Europe's strong concerns about Iran were initially expected to be reflected in a separate resolution that Britain, France, and Germany had proposed bringing up this week with the IAEA's board of governors in Vienna. But the proposal ran into a brick wall from nonaligned countries – that is, developing nations expressing views independent of Western powers – and was dropped Tuesday.
An IAEA resolution critical of Iran's actions and its lack of full transparency would have marked the first such action on Iran by the board since the Iran dossier was referred to the Security Council in 2006. But representatives of the Non-Aligned Movement said in Vienna Tuesday that they were adamantly opposed to any action by the board of governors.
"We don't think that there is any need for a draft resolution," said Norma Goicochea Estenoz, Cuba's ambassador to the IAEA and chair of the nonaligned countries' bloc of nations within the IAEA. "In our opinion, it would damage the environment of cooperation and confidence-building between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the agency."
Despite that setback for the Europeans, passage of the new Security Council resolution is expected to pave the way to passage of tougher sanctions by the European Union. The EU last year approved measures that were designed to promote implementation of the second Security Council resolution, but it has not before acted beyond UN measures.