U.S. explores curbs on Iran

Security Council support iffy

Washington tries other routes

August 26, 2006|By Maggie Farley | Maggie Farley,Los Angeles Times

UNITED NATIONS -- With increasing signs that several fellow Security Council members might stall a U.S. push to sanction Iran for its nuclear enrichment program, administration officials indicated yesterday that they are prepared to form an independent coalition to freeze Iranian assets and restrict trade.

The strategy, analysts say, reflects not only long-standing U.S. frustration with the Security Council's inaction on Iran, but also the current weakness of Washington's position because of its role in a series of conflicts in the Middle East, most recently in Lebanon.

Despite assurances from Russia and China in July that they would support initial sanctions against Iran if it failed to suspend aspects of its nuclear program, Russia seemed to backtrack this week after Tehran agreed to continue talks but refused to halt enrichment. A Security Council resolution gives the Islamic republic until Aug. 31 to stop uranium enrichment or face penalties.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said yesterday that as long as Iran was willing to negotiate, it was "premature" to punish the country and perhaps permanently isolate it.

"I do not know cases in international practice or the whole of the previous experience when sanctions reached their goals or were efficient," Ivanov said. "Apart from this, I do not think that the issue is so urgent that the U.N. Security Council or the group of six countries [U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany] should consider the introduction of sanctions. In any case, Russia continues to advocate a political and diplomatic solution to the problem."

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Iran's response "is not satisfactory" but France wants to avoid a new conflict.

"The worst thing would be to escalate into a confrontation with Iran on the one hand, and the Muslim world with Iran, and the West," he said on French radio. "That would be the clash of the civilizations that France today is practically alone in trying to avoid."

U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton said in an interview that the U.S. planned to introduce a resolution imposing penalties such as a travel ban and asset freeze for key Iranian leaders soon after the Aug. 31 deadline, and he seemed optimistic that China and Russia would come around once they saw the text. "Everybody's been on board," he said.

But in case Russia and China drag their heels, the U.S. is working a parallel diplomatic track outside the U.N., Bolton said.

Washington could ramp up its own sanctions, including intercepting missile and nuclear materials en route to Iran, and financial constraints on Iran under existing terrorism laws, and it is encouraging other countries to follow suit, said Bolton.

"You don't need Security Council authority to impose sanctions, just as we have," he said in an interview.

The U.S. has had broad restrictions on almost all trade with Iran since 1987. Exceptions include the import of dried fruits and nuts, caviar and carpets. In addition, U.S. companies can obtain licenses to do limited trade in agriculture and medicine. The U.S. also initiated the Proliferation Security Initiative, a coalition of countries that have agreed to interdict shipments of materials to Iran that could be used for weapons of mass destruction.

"We will continue to enhance PSI to cut off flows of materials and technology that are useful to Iran's ballistic missile program and nuclear programs," Bolton said. "We will be constraining financial transactions under existing terrorism laws."

He said Washington is focusing on European and Japanese banks to restrict business with Iran, because most of Iran's transactions are done in dollars, euros, pounds and yen.

"There aren't a lot of opportunities to sell in other currencies," he said.

Bolton and U.S. Treasury officials refused to provide specific details on which countries might be interested, because of the "sensitivity" of the talks.

But Treasury spokesman Molly Millerwise said they have already seen results, including the Union Bank of Switzerland's cutting off banking relationships with Iran.

"We're seeing more financial institutions around the world looking at the actions and messages emanating out of Iran - from their nuclear ambitions to state sponsorship of Hezbollah - and asking themselves, "Do we really want to be Iran's banker?" she said in an e-mail.

While U.S. officials say that pursuing parallel paths is "common sense" and highlights the inefficiency of the Security Council, some analysts said the move would underline Washington's inability to win over the council and the lack of options against a newly emboldened Iran.

"When you start doing things that would be better with the Security Council's endorsement, does it show weakness or strength?" said George Perkovich, the director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Iran could argue that the U.S. couldn't even get the Security Council backing, and so we are winning."

Perkovich said even traditional U.S. allies are fatigued by dealing with multiple conflicts and don't want to add Iran to the list of Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.

"There is a general reluctance to follow the U.S. lead," he said. "Our negotiating power is diminished, which is regrettable."

Maggie Farley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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