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Security Council's Muddled Message to Iran

Author: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
June 9, 2010

Security Council's Muddled Message to Iran - security-councils-muddled-message-to-iran


The UN Security Council's vote to impose new sanctions on Iran gives U.S. President Barack Obama the diplomatic victory he has long sought. The sanctions by themselves, however, are unlikely to produce the result he most wants: a halt to Iran's nuclear weapons program.

The Security Council resolution, the fourth to target Iran since 2006, again calls on Tehran to comply with its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations.  To back up that demand, the Council bans a wider range of arms sales to Tehran, restricts Iranian banks operating abroad, adds more Iranian companies to the embargo blacklist, and authorizes countries to stop and inspect any cargo bound for Iran that they suspect contains prohibited nuclear items.

These are not the crippling sanctions that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had promised about a year ago. To the contrary. As the price of their support, veto-holding members China and Russia insisted that the resolution contain nothing that would impose broad costs on the Iranian economy--or damage Chinese and Russian commercial interests in the country.

The Obama administration calculates that even a watered-down resolution will put pressure on Tehran to return to the negotiating table. The resolution shows that the Security Council's permanent members remain united in their demand that Iran come clean on its nuclear program, makes it harder for Iran to acquire nuclear technology, and opens the door to additional sanctions by the European Union and others.

Tehran will likely read the resolution's passage differently. The weaker-than-threatened sanctions came only after months of haggling, making the prospect of tougher sanctions down the road look remote. Moreover, Brazil and Turkey voted against new sanctions (and Lebanon abstained). No country had voted against any of the three previous resolutions.

The Brazilian and Turkish dissents highlight a broader shift in the geopolitical environment: A year after being widely condemned for beating and killing protestors who questioned the results of its presidential election, Tehran has regained diplomatic momentum. Last month it was elected to a seat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and Brazil and Turkey broke ranks with the United States and the other permanent members to negotiate a deal that would allow Iran to get enriched uranium suitable for medical use.

The expectation that the new sanctions can be beat make it likely that Tehran will respond to the resolution's passage with more defiance and bluster. The Obama administration, for its part, will seek to keep China and Russia behind the sanctions effort and persuade its friends and allies to make the most of the new authorities that the resolution grants.

The end result is that the high-stakes game of chicken over Iran's nuclear program will continue.

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