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Sanctions Bedevil Iran Diplomacy

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
March 24, 2006


When the board of governors of the UN's nuclear agency referred the Iran nuclear case to the Security Council in early February, it was widely believed the crisis had entered a new stage. Bringing matters before the powerful fifteen-member body usually has consequences. At a minimum, there is a collective statement of concern that sets the stage for action. But instead of hitting overdrive, the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program have stalled. The United States, Britain, and France seek a statement (AP) calling on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Russia and China, rounding out the permanent five veto-holding members of the Security Council, are against the proposed text, worried it provides a foundation for sanctions against Iran.

This leaves the Security Council bogged down in a familiar debate over sanctions, described in this new CFR Background Q&A by's Robert McMahon. Echoing the crisis over Iraq, and more recent talks about Sudan's Darfur region, Russia and China are loath to impose sanctions on countries with which they have close business ties. But some suggest the U.S. desire for regime change in Iran also is at fault here. Just as that issue haunted negotiations on Iraq's disarmament, it could be disastrous for diplomacy on Iran as well, says Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She writes in a New York Times op-ed that the Bush administration must "hold its nose, recognize that the nuclear challenge is the indisputable priority," and begin direct talks with Tehran, accompanied by vigorous diplomacy with fellow council members to pressure Iran. CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh told a recent briefing that Iranian leaders at the moment are convinced that any concession on their part will only lead to more U.S. demands ultimately aimed at replacing the regime.

Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, argues against any push for sanctions, saying it could immobilize the Council and possibly provoke an Iranian withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Kimball says the Council should focus instead on strengthening the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Iran until questions about possible nuclear weapons activity are resolved. Other skeptics of sweeping sanctions are Gary Hufbauer and Jeffrey Schott, senior fellows at the Institute for International Economics, who say that most Council members are unwilling to accept possible Iranian retaliation that could send oil prices above $100 per barrel. Better to target sanctions at critical nuclear components headed for Iran, they say.

Others say it is a waste of time pursuing a solution through the Security Council. The Jerusalem Post says any sanctions agreed by Russia and China would likely be too limited to affect Iran's course and so the United States and Europe must prepare to act on their own. Washington should prepare to form an ad hoc coalition to coerce Tehran through sanctions, advises Foreign Policy magazine senior editor David Bosco. In his view, "a blissfully united Council means little if rogue regimes acquire nuclear weapons."

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