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U.N. Negotiations Continue, but Can They Stop Iran’s Nuclear Push?

November 14, 2006
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Jewish officials are expressing skepticism about the latest Security Council effort to impose sanctions on Iran, warning that even if an agreement can be reached it’s likely to be too watered down to impact the mullahs’ nuclear program. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany continued negotiating an Iran resolution this week even as a growing cohort of voices argue that the effort is deeply flawed.

Aaron Jacob, the American Jewish Committee’s deputy director for international affairs, called the proposed measures “low-impact sanctions” that aren’t stringent enough to divert Iran from its presumed drive for nuclear weapons.

“The resolution is not going to stop Iran from further enrichment and processing activities,” Jacob said. “There will probably be a need to adopt yet another resolution providing for stronger sanctions.”

Responding to Iran’s failure to comply with international demands to stop enriching uranium, France, Britain and Germany presented a draft resolution two weeks ago requiring states “to prevent the supply, sale or transfer” to Iran of material that could benefit its nuclear program, and to prohibit Iranians abroad from conducting specialized training in subjects related to nuclear activity.

Russia, which has a significant commercial interest in Iran’s nuclear program, is leading the opposition. Axel Cruau, a spokesman for France’s U.N. delegation, told JTA that Russia is trying to reduce the scope of sanctions, in contrast to the United States, which favors sweeping measures.

“The name of the game is to find this point of balance,” said Cruau, who expressed confidence that the council ultimately would reach an agreement but declined to speculate how long it might take.

Even if the council does succeed in bridging the gap, it likely will do little to silence critics who argue that Iran is merely playing for time, cooperating with the international community just enough to avoid crippling sanctions while it continues to develop a weapons capability in secret.

“The Iranian strategy all along has been to drag out the negotiating process on this, to buy time for them to go nuclear,” said Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council. “They have been remarkably successful at that.”

Berman says nuclear technology satisfies multiple objectives for Iran — enhancing its prestige in the region, serving as a deterrent to attack and solidifying the clerical regime’s grip on power.

Sanctions might be successful in delaying Iran’s progress toward a weapon, but they won’t force the country’s leaders to abandon the pursuit altogether — and certainly not the minimal sanctions that could result from a Russian-European compromise, he says.

Instead, Berman supports a broader strategy against the Islamic republic, laid out in a paper released last week by the Working Group on Iran’s Global Influence, which he co-chairs. The paper calls for the United States to undertake a range of coercive measures against Iran, including economic pressure, plans for military action and support for regime change.

“The problem with our strategy writ large with regard to Iran is we’re not differentiating between nuclear technology and the regime that’s going to wield it,” he said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road.”

Iran claims it’s the victim of an international campaign to deny it access to peaceful nuclear technology. But few in the West believe that oil-rich Iran is genuinely interested in nuclear energy.

That was the message delivered by former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in New York last week. Speaking at a daylong conference on the U.N. role in the Middle East, Fischer said Iran’s frequent brandishing of its missile technology and its calls for the destruction of Israel make it difficult to believe it won’t use nuclear technology for aggressive purposes.

“It’s not a question of the right” to nuclear technology, “it’s a question of trust,” Fischer said. “I don’t buy, to be very frank, that this program is designed for civilian purposes.”

Responding to Fischer’s remarks, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, repeated his government’s denial that it was seeking a weapons capability to intimidate other countries.

“Iran has not threatened, nor will it threaten, to use force against any other country,” Zarif said, claiming that Iran itself has been threatened — by Israel.

The Israeli dimension looms large over the Iran debate. Israel long has warned about the threat of a nuclear Iran, a warning made more salient by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s frequent statements denying the Holocaust and his calls to wipe Israel off the map.

Many worry that Israel could act alone if it thinks the United States is progressing too slowly to contain Tehran. His menu of policy recommendations to the United States notwithstanding, Berman said he believes Israel will feel forced to strike within the year.

“I think we’re quite clearly entering a season of hard choices on the part of the Israelis,” he said.

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