A closed-door meeting of six world powers signaled growing impatience with Iran's inscrutability on its nuclear program, coming a day after US President Barak Obama in Asia said Iran would face "consequences" if it refused to show good faith.
The Brussels meeting of UN Security Council members plus Germany represents the first collective focus by the powers to inch forward on punitive measures towards Iran – after the Islamic Republic's failure to make good on an Oct. 1 agreement in principle to ship most of its enriched uranium outside its borders. The deal was seen as a good-faith test, and a way for the sides to negotiate in a more stable atmosphere without the imminent threat of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
Western diplomats say the Brussels meeting of third and fourth-tier diplomats reviewed options both to try and engage Iran, but also to explore what measures to take if Iran continues to balk after what has generally been described as a year-end deadline.
"You aren't going to see the word 'sanctions' in formal diplomacy, publically, until the end of the year," said a Western official.
President Obama on Thursday said the US has "begun discussions with our international partners about the importance of having consequences" – should Iran not be more forthcoming in discussions on its nuclear program, which it insists is for peaceful purposes alone but which the West suspects is a guise for developing nuclear weapons.
'Atmosphere of desperation'
The president's efforts to negotiate with Iran this fall showed he was bending over "backwards," in the words of IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, to reach out to Iran. Yet this week Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki signaled the Islamic Republic wished to reopen technical negotiations to send out 75 percent of its enriched uranium for further processing abroad.
The French foreign ministry said Thursday it was unwilling to reopen technical talks on transferring the uranium – a position other nations are said to agree with.
EU official Robert Cooper, chair of the Brussels meeting, said the group shared "disappointment" that Iran did not take up the offer to reprocess its uranium. "We urge Iran to reconsider the opportunity offered by this agreement... and to engage seriously with us in dialogue and negotiations," Mr. Cooper said in a statement.
Mr. ElBaradei, who held out hope that a nuclear deal could be reached by year's end, nevertheless characterized the Brussels meeting of Russia, China, Britain, the US, and France, and Germany as taking place "in an atmosphere of desperation." Several Western diplomats dismissed this characterization, saying it reflected more ElBaradei's concern that sanctions are a harmful solution as an answer to Iran's nuclear program.
Jim Walsh, an international security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., noted that the view on the effectiveness of sanctions runs the gamut of opinions in various capitals, but added that the trend in recent years is to deepen and extend sanctions that already exist – such as putting further freezes on assets, adding to lists of scientists and artists not allowed to travel.
French, German, and other European officials this summer and fall took a strong pro-sanctions position against Iran if it does not begin to comply with UN rules on its nuclear program – stating that the EU would impose sanctions if the UN was unable to. European diplomats tend not to express faith in sanctions as an overall answer, but support them, as do the French, as a measure short of military action.
In Asia, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev suggested Russia may support sanctions on Iran, though it is felt that neither Russia or China are willing to clamp down on energy, gas, and oil – the sanctions seen as having the most painful effect.