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Iran Showdown Enters Next Phase

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
September 1, 2006

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The Americans and Europeans want sanctions. Beijing and Moscow prefer further diplomacy. Where do Security Council negotiations over Iran's nuclear program go from here?

The August 31 deadline, imposed by the veto-wielding "Big Five" plus Germany, came and went without any agreement reached (CNN). The Iranians pledged their interest in "serious negotiations," but continued enriching small amounts of uranium on the side, undeterred by the threat of sanctions or international isolation. The latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found at an Iranian facility new traces of highly enriched uranium which, contrary to Iranian claims, did not come from contaminated equipment originating in Pakistan. The particles found were not bomb-grade, and the IAEA claims it "has not uncovered any concrete proof that Iran's nuclear program is of a military nature."

That has not assuaged fears in Western capitals that Iran wants to build a bomb. "There must be consequences for Iran's defiance," pledged President Bush (NYT). But the UN Security Council disagrees over what those consequences should be. European and American officials are expected to meet in Berlin next week to plan a course of action. One proposal includes imposing political and economic sanctions outside the rubric of the Security Council. Another European proposal calls for softer sanctions, such as blocking Iranian access to international banks or imposing travel bans against top Iranian officials. Russian and Chinese officials have been largely mum, only to say they favor "patience" and further "dialogue." Beijing and Moscow fear punitive actions may jeopardize their economic and energy interests with Iran (RFE/RL).

But would sanctions, however severe, even work? "A country capable of producing its own nuclear fuel can also overcome sanctions," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters. Plus, "as Washington learned with India and Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s, sanctions only increase the costs of going nuclear," writes Scott Sagan in Foreign Affairs, "[but] they do not reduce the ability of a determined government to get the bomb." Still, sweeping sanctions would adversely affect Iran's struggling and heavily subsidized economy, as this Backgrounder explains. George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment, in an interview with CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman, suggests that sanctions can only be effective if the Russians are onboard and provided they include bans against arms sales (which would primarily affect Moscow).

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