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A Pause for Thought on Iran Sanctions

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
September 28, 2007

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Contrary to the assertions of Iran's president, the Iran nuclear file remains open in the UN Security Council. But Tehran has gained a couple months of breathing room. On September 28, foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany agreed to defer action (BBC) on new sanctions against Iran until the council receives reports in November by UN nuclear agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. The decision marked a compromise between negotiators divided over whether to press ahead with immediate sanctions for Iran's refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

Germany, for one, has been at odds with France’s proposal for European Union sanctions against Iran if there is no agreement in New York. Germany’s Spiegel magazine says German officials are poised to raise concerns that U.S. and French companies continue to benefit from trade with Iran even while both countries press other states to cut off ties. The Bush administration, sensitive to ruptures in the Western coalition against Iran, was opposed (FT) to moves this week by its own Congress to punish energy firms, including European ones, doing business with Iran.

Veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China, meanwhile, are not inclined to move quickly on new sanctions because of a work plan reached between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) aimed at clearing up issues related to Iran’s nuclear program. U.S. and European officials have grudgingly accepted the deal.

Some analysts think the agreement could work to the West’s advantage. Columbia University scholar Gary Sick, a former longtime Iran expert in the National Security Council, tells CFR.org that the IAEA deal, which sets year-end deadlines for Iran to answer outstanding questions, puts pressure on Tehran. If Iran continues to stall, Sick says, “another round of much tougher sanctions are inevitable and they will universally be accepted by Russia, China, and everybody else and Iran knows that.” But David Albright and Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security worry that the IAEA seems to be relinquishing (PDF) its ability to continue to investigate Iran’s past and future actions. Still, there have been persistent reports Iran is struggling with its centrifuge-enrichment technology. That factor could delay its ability to build a nuclear bomb until 2015, according to details of an unreleased new National Intelligence Estimate reported by Newsweek.

A number of experts doubt the efficacy of sanctions as a policy, and call for a more sophisticated approach. Many have noted, for example, that Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful figure on national security issues. The New York Times cites analysts who say that by demonizing Ahmadinejad, the West has elevated his status “at a time when he is increasingly isolated politically.” It would be better at this juncture for the United States to enter direct and comprehensive negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, argue CFR’s Ray Takeyh and Colin Dueck of George Mason University in Political Science Quarterly. If presented with significant economic incentives, they write, pragmatic leaders like [Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei “could very well choose economic benefits over nuclear weapons.” At the same time, say Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute, moves like gasoline rationing show the impact sanctions are beginning to have on the Iranian economy.

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