The United Nations Security Council on Monday passed a third set of sanctions targeting Iran for its pursuit of uranium enrichment, a process the international community fears could lead to development of a nuclear weapon.
In response, Iran promised to press forward with its nuclear program, including uranium enrichment, saying it "cannot and will not accept a requirement which is legally defective and politically coercive." The unbowed commitment to perfecting the enrichment process practically guarantees that Iran's nuclear program will remain at the top of the international security agenda.
The Council voted 14 in favor, with one abstention from rotating Council member Indonesia. It was a better outcome for the Council’s big powers than the numerous abstentions or even negative votes they were anticipating even a week ago.
The resolution includes new financial measures against specific Iranian individuals and institutions, provisions for inspecting certain Iranian vessels and aircraft, and restrictions on the sale of some dual-use materials to Iran. It is considered an "incremental" increase in pressure on Tehran to halt its enrichment program, according to US officials, and is not expected to force a quick change of heart by Iran.
In a statement following the vote on behalf of the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the United States, 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 statement also reiterated the six powers' offer to provide Iran with incentives in exchange for halting its nuclear enrichment program.
But in a long speech to the Council as it prepared to vote, Mohammad Khazaee, Iranian ambassador to the UN, insisted that Iran would never bow to "unlawful action against a proud and resolute nation."
That statement only confirmed the view held by many Western officials that Iran has not altered its activities as a result of international diplomatic action. "We have the impression nothing has really changed on the goals being pursued [in Iran]" since the first set of sanctions was approved in December 2006, says a senior European diplomat who requested anonymity to comment on a delicate international issue.
That is not the view of Indonesia, however, whose 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 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he said.
Still, the vote comes amid indications that the UN sanctions, along with separate measures taken by the US, are being felt by Iranian elites. Even Ambassador Khazaee acknowledged an impact in comments to the UN press last week.
"The sanctions are biting somewhat," adds the senior European official, "and they are biting in ways we want them to."
US and European officials, especially, want the sanctions to hit the financial and business interests of Iran's political, military, and financial leadership, without having an adverse impact on the living standards of ordinary Iranians. From the Western officials' standpoint, one desired effect of the new sanctions is that they have a public-relations impact. The officials say they hope renewed attention to the international community's disagreement with Tehran will encourage Iranian voters in mid-March local elections to send a message by supporting the country's moderates.
But Monday's Council vote comes amid contradictory directions in the nearly two-year effort to forestall any effort by Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.
On the one hand, fresh evidence publicly unveiled last week by the IAEA, the UN's nuclear watchdog agency, adds new weight to mounting evidence that Iran at least in the past actively pursued a nuclear weaponization program. That evidence, revealed in a meeting of the IAEA in Vienna last week, appears to have played a role in securing the 14 votes against Iran.
On the other hand, the longer-than-anticipated 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. Developing countries are not dismissive of Iran's argument that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes of energy generation – but that the world's economic powers want to maintain control of nuclear energy technology.
"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 that reflected some countries' disagreement with the tactics of the resolution's sponsors and with the campaign for a third resolution now. 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.
Yet 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 IAEA.
Another notable report on Iran was publicly released late last year: The US National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran halted a nuclear-weapons program in 2003 but has still worked on uranium-enrichment technology, which could be used for weapons development.
In its statement to the Council, 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," Khazaee said. "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.
Monday's resolution could be the last time the Security Council takes up Iran in a while, but it does not necessarily mean the effort to increase sanctions will fall dormant. For one thing, passage of the resolution is expected to pave the way to passage of sanctions by the European Union.
European officials say that new measures have been prepared but that several countries preferred to proceed only after a renewed expression of disagreement with Iran by the international community. And the basis of that dispute remains the same, Britain's Ambassador Sawers said: "Iran continues to pursue a program that makes no sense for a civilian nuclear-power program."
[Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the vote tally.]