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Analysis the Iran Sanctions Package: Some Assembly Required, Teeth Not Included

December 26, 2006
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The U.N. sanctions package for Iran might have come with one of those labels so familiar from other seasonal deliveries: some assembly required, teeth not included. After weeks of struggling between the United States and Europe, which favored tough measures to stem the Persian nuclear tide, and Russia and China, which maintain close business ties with Iran, the U.N. Security Council’s verdict this weekend was a mash of tough legal terms attached to vague prescriptions.

To be sure, the 15-0 decision was under Chapter Seven of the U.N. charter, meaning its decision carried the force of international law — a hard-won victory for the U.S.-Europe team, which had failed to secure Chapter Seven status for the resolution that ended Israel’s war with Hezbollah this summer.

The problem is, it’s not clear what exactly is being sanctioned.

The first provisions essentially reiterate longstanding international demands that Iran cooperate with nuclear inspectors and suspend the enrichment of uranium, a necessary step in the manufacture of a nuclear weapon. Iran denies its goal is nuclear weaponry, but U.N. nuclear inspectors have cast strong suspicions on such denials. It sets a deadline of Feb. 21, 2007, for compliance — the third or fourth such deadline since last summer.

A raft of subsequent provisions bans the export to Iran of technology or training that might have “dual uses” — in other words, for civilian or for nuclear weaponry.

But there are substantial exceptions for the dual-use bans, especially related to Iran’s Bushehr reactor, which is being built with Russian assistance. This creates a loophole, even though Russia and Iran maintain that Bushehr is strictly for civilian use.

In any case, according to the picture painted by Israeli intelligence, the usefulness of the dual-use ban is long past due, at least as far as training goes: Iran is just months away from the know-how it needs to make a nuclear bomb, Israeli officials have suggested.

The new powers the resolution accords to the international community come toward the end, when it lists 10 entities and 12 individuals designated to have their funds frozen. Even these, however, come with substantial exceptions for deals made prior to the resolution. The exceptions do not include prior “dual use” deals, but the caveat is almost meaningless considering the fungibility of money in such international dealings.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Iranian missile manufacturer Aerospace Industries Organization was removed from the list at the last minute.

More substantially, the resolution does not ban the travel of the individuals or the company directors, which has been routine in past cases. This enables black market trade.

The vagueness of the document was immediately apparent in how the ambassadors to the Security Council described its meaning before its passage on Saturday.

According to the U.N. report, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said it would help “ensure confidence” in Iran’s existing nuclear program. U.S. envoy Alejandro Wolff said it should encourage Iran to “relent from its confrontational posture.”

U.S. officials underscored the defeat the resolution handed to Iranian diplomacy, which had pressed hard for no resolution.

“It’s a big spotlight. It is going to be humiliating for Iran,” said Nicholas Burns, an undersecretary of state, in a conference call with reporters after the vote. “The Iranians have launched a pretty vigorous international campaign over the last few months to prevent this from happening.”

Burns said the United States would encourage its allies to broaden the sanctions — an acknowledgment, however, that enforcement was pretty much what U.N. member states made of it.

“We don’t think this resolution is enough in itself,” he said. “We want the international community to take further action, and we’re certainly not going to put all of our eggs in a U.N. basket. We’re going to try to convince countries, especially the European Union countries and Japan, to consider some of the financial measures that we have undertaken. This is a campaign we’ve launched to convince some of the international lending institutions and private banks that they should shut down lending to Iran.”

Some analysts said the details of what sanctions do and do not apply matter less than the resolution’s legal heft. A statement from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee suggested that the Security Council’s willingness to invoke its law enforcement powers through Chapter Seven was the real breakthrough.

“This sanctions resolution is a critical and necessary step toward ensuring that Tehran’s radical regime realizes serious consequences for its defiance of U.N. Security Council demands to end its nuclear pursuit and to ensuring that Iran is not permitted to possess the world’s most dangerous weapons,” AIPAC said in a statement. “It sets a clear path for Iran — end its nuclear enrichment activities or face continued international and diplomatic isolation.”

Iran’s reaction was, for a regime that periodically wishes Israel off the map, relatively restrained. The Iranian envoy, Javad Zarif, spent much of his response time blasting Israel’s nuclear capability as the real threat to the region, but added that Iran would “go to any length to allay” the Security Council’s “so-called proliferation concerns, in spite of the fact that we all know they are no more than unfounded and self-serving sheer excuses.”

That seemed to remove Iran’s earlier threat that it would ban U.N. inspectors in case of a resolution.

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