Iran nuclear sanctions: Ahmadinejad says they won't bite

The US, at the urging of partners, has weakened proposed Iran nuclear sanctions at the urging of allies. A defiant President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said no country could stop 'the fast speeding train of Iranian progress.'

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the nation on the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, in Tehran on March 20.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the impact of any new nuclear sanctions on Thursday as the United States weakened proposed measures against the Islamic Republic in a bid to win broader support on the UN Security Council.

“Let me tell you, the era when they could hurt the Iranian nation is over,” the archconservative Mr. Ahmadinejad said in a speech broadcast on national TV.

“The Iranian nation is at such a height that their evil hands can’t touch it,” he said. “They want to stop, even for an hour, the fast speeding train of Iranian progress. But they will be unable to do it.”

Iran's determination to continue with its controversial nuclear program, despite six major world powers “making a fuss” about it, in Ahmadinejad’s words, was not enough to convince those powers to agree during a conference call on Wednesday to impose a fourth set of UN sanctions on Iran.

On Thursday the Wall Street Journal reported that US diplomats have removed a number of strict measures – including closing international airspace and waters for Iran’s state-owned air cargo and shipping lines, and “choking off Tehran’s access” to global banking services and capital markets – in order to make the measures more acceptable to Russia and China.

Past sanctions have not prompted Iran to slow down or suspend its nuclear program — a point privately accepted by senior US diplomats. Tehran says it is pursuing peaceful nuclear energy; many Western politicians and Israel charge that Iran wants a nuclear bomb.

Sanctions or something else?

So are sanctions a pointless default policy? Or is there a hidden strategy aimed at engendering talks about a nuclear fuel swap that both sides say remains, in some form, on the table?

“If people really believe that sanctions are going to change Iran’s fundamental nuclear policy, in terms of building and installing centrifuges [to enrich uranium], they are wrong – pure and simple,” says Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia.

“The other possibility that is much more subtle, and would not be advertised, is that you mount this effort of ostensibly going for massive sanctions to persuade the Iranians to come back to the bargaining table,” says Dr. Sick, the principal White House aide during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis.

That would partly depend on the US deciding – and it appears not to have done so yet, says Sick – to look again at Iran’s counterproposal to a US-backed nuclear fuel deal brokered by the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency last October.

Since then, both the US and Iran have raised the rhetorical temperature against each other. And despite a statement from President Barack Obama to mark the start of the Persian New Year last weekend, in which he said his previous offer of “dialogue” still stood, there has been little sign from either US or Iranian officials of a willingness to engage.

Early reaction from Tehran is that Mr. Obama’s comments “were nothing but a deception,” the head of Iran’s Foreign Policy and National Security Committee in parliament, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said on Wednesday. Though the US had sent several messages calling for talks, he said, they “at the same time passed more than 60 anti-Iranian bills in their Congress.”

Britain and Germany convinced US officials to soften the language and remove the most stringent sanctions measures, in a bid to convince Russia and especially China – which has far-reaching economic and energy ties to Iran – to join a new sanctions resolution. The three previous rounds of UN Security Council sanctions placed on Iran have all been unanimous.

Russia working with China?

Russia announced on Wednesday that it had been working along with China to persuade Iran to accept the fuel deal put forward last autumn, in which Iran would export a sizable quantity of low-enriched uranium. That would leave too little in Iran to fashion a nuclear device, if enriched to much higher levels, and that material would be turned into fuel in Russia and France and returned to Iran for a small Tehran research reactor for medical isotopes.

After months of delay, Iran put forward a modified proposal, insisting on a swap on Iranian soil, and export of smaller portions of nuclear material. US officials have so far dismissed that offer.

Russia has increased its own pressure on Iran over a number of issues, and on Thursday said Moscow could support more sanctions.

“If there is no visible progress in this direction, then we do not exclude the possibility of putting additional pressure on the Iranians with the help of sanctions,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko. “But … such sanctions must be directed exclusively on the resolution of nonproliferation tasks and not aimed at … financial and economic suffocation.”

“Part of the US system wants really tough US sanctions, crippling sanctions, sanctions that bite – whatever the words are that Hillary Clinton is currently using – even if purely for bargaining purposes,” says Sick.

Signs of diplomatic progress

The fact that Russia and China are independently telling Iran to “reexamine this swap [deal], because we’re under enormous pressure to impose sanctions that we don’t like, but we can’t ignore the Americans,” is a sign of diplomatic progress, even if unintended by Washington, says Sick. “So the threat of more severe sanctions is actually more effective than what the sanctions package is going to look like – if you get to that point.”

On Thursday, Beijing, Iran’s top trading partner, reiterated its position: “China urges all sides to use diplomatic means to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiation,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

The five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany agreed to meet early next week to discuss sanctions against Iran. The British ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant said China had “agreed to engage substantively.”

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