A row over fifteen British naval personnel seized by the Iranian government spiked tensions between Tehran and the West this week. Iran said the sailors were trespassing in Iranian waters, televised footage of two of the detainees admitting as much, and demanded an apology (BBC). The British government countered the sailors were in Iraqi waters and that the confessions were coerced. The UN Security Council weighed in on matter on March 30, expressing "grave concern" (Bloomberg) and calling for Iran to release the detainees. The Security Council rejected stronger language specifying that the incident took place in Iraqi waters.
The dispute coincided with a major display (AP) of American military operations in the Persian Gulf, and came on the heels of a unanimous March 24 vote the by UN Security Council to impose new sanctions against Iran. These include a ban on all Iranian arms exports, as well as asset freezes of twenty-eight officials and entities. Though the measures were still more moderate than those proposed by Washington, they continue to ratchet up pressure on Iranian officials to suspend their uranium-enrichment program. As with previous warnings and measures, Iran met this one with defiance. The government plans to suspend (al-Jazeera) adherence to the codes requiring countries to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear agency, of decisions related to its nuclear program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reasserted claims that the UN move was illegal. He railed against “spiteful and vicious movements of certain powers” against Iran. Adding to tensions was the Iranian seizure (FT) on March 23 of fifteen British military personnel charged with illegally entering Iranian waters. Some analysts saw this as a desperate Iranian move to counter international pressure (SFChron). But it could deepen Tehran’s isolation, especially if the Security Council joins Britain’s calls (Spiegel) to release the sailors and marines.
The UN move was occurring on a parallel track with informal U.S.-led efforts to tighten economic screws on Iran. More than forty financial institutions have curtailed business with Iranian entities since the U.S. campaign began last fall, the Washington Post reports. Matthew Levitt, an expert on terrorism financing at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says in a new CFR.org Podcast that Iran is already feeling a financial squeeze and that the United States should consider applying further pressure against Iranian banks. As CFR Director of Studies Gary Samore said in a recent speech before the International Institute for Strategic Studies, since the first resolution's passage, “the balance has begun to shift,” given Moscow and Beijing's support for graduated punitive measures.
The Security Council’s latest ban hits an Iranian defense industry that has grown significantly in recent years. Iran sells weaponry, not to mention technical know-how, to dozens of countries throughout the developing world, including countries accused of genocide (Daily Times) like Sudan. Tehran also supplies arms to non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas, considered terrorist organizations by the United States and the European Union. Iran is not only a major arms exporter, but also a large importer, getting the bulk of its weapon systems from Russia, as this Backgrounder explains.
Experts disagree if the arms embargo against Iran will do the trick. A resolution would not affect Tehran’s alleged illicit transfers of weapons to terrorist groups or Iraqi militias. George Perkovich, a leading expert on Iran’s nuclear program at the Carnegie Endowment, tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman in a new interview he believes if Security Council pressure persists, a “core” of Iranian leaders will move to suspend enrichment activities, at least temporarily. Guy Ben-Ali of the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes, “It is not the loss of this rather insignificant source of foreign currency—Iran exported an estimated $63 billion worth of commodities in 2006—that will cause Tehran to wince if [sanctions are imposed]. Rather, it is the loss of a key foreign and national security policy tool.” Another positive sign is Russia's recent threat to withhold nuclear fuel for a civilian reactor at Bushehr until Iran suspends its uranium-enrichment program (NYT).