Iran sanctions could fracture coalition

August 24, 2006 - 0:0
It was always going to be tough for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to hold together her fragile coalition of world powers trying to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon has made that job harder.

While Iran’s official response to the package of carrots from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China was, at 21 pages, voluminous, the key point is that Iran’s leaders did not agree to suspend enrichment of uranium, the central demand of the coalition.

Now the question is whether Ms. Rice, who returned from vacation this week and was studying Iran’s response, can keep the coalition together to take out their sticks against Iran.

That will not be easy, in part because the entire United Nations Security Council is supposed to vote on the sanctions package. While only the permanent members can veto, the rising fear, particularly among European diplomats, is that smaller countries on the Council are so angry over how the United States, and now France, have handled the Lebanon crisis that they will give Russia and China political cover to balk against imposing tough sanctions.

While France, for instance, has been almost as insistent on a tough stance against Iran’s nuclear program as the United States, France has also in recent days alienated many members of the Security Council by offering only 200 troops to a peacekeeping effort in Lebanon.

“The Lebanese situation has caused a lot of bad faith and I think that will play into this,” said one European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic rules.

Getting the group to punish Tehran was always going to be difficult. Russia and China have deep economic interests in Iran and dislike the blunt instrument of sanctions. And the West must tread carefully because any sanctions levied in the place that could actually hurt Iran — its energy sector — would ratchet up already high global oil prices and end up harming the West.

That was the tough road Ms. Rice faced even before the Lebanon crisis began. Now, “Lebanon has proven that there’s no military solution to the problem in the Middle East,” said Trita Parsi, the Iranian-born author of “Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States,” which Yale University Press plans to publish next year. While there is no talk among the world powers right now about hitting Iran militarily, European diplomats in particular said they worried about a downward spiral if the sanctions did not work.

“They’ve been dragged into three wars over there by the U.S.,” Mr. Parsi said, referring to Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

“They don’t want a fourth.”

Bush administration officials have said Ms. Rice received assurances in June that Russia would, at a minimum, sign on to a first phase of weak sanctions if Iran refused to suspend uranium enrichment. Those sanctions would most likely include a ban on travel by Iranian officials and curbs on imports of nuclear-related technology. United States officials have worked hard to portray their coalition as united, and disputed suggestions that the group could fracture.

“Will there be some slippage? Sure,” one senior Bush administration official said, speaking on condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to talk publicly. But, he said, “I don’t think there’s any question that there will be a resolution on sanctions.”

But the initial sanctions will undoubtedly be too weak to be effective, said some diplomats, who also predicted trouble if the United States tried to prod Russia and China to take aim at Iran’s energy sector. Iran sits on some of the largest known oil reserves, but is forced to import more than 40 percent of its gasoline because it does not have the refinery capacity it needs.

What is more, China and Russia both have energy companies invested in Iran, and they, along with European countries, would likely think hard before agreeing to prohibit the purchase of Iranian oil or to limit investment in Iran’s petroleum industry.

And if Iran has indeed held out the possibility of having talks about suspending uranium enrichment, as some reports indicated, that could further fracture the coalition.

The United States, Britain, France and Germany planned to meet Wednesday to discuss the Iranian proposal and the prospect of drawing up a sanctions resolution. But it is notable that the meeting will not include Russia and China.

Meanwhile, smaller Council members are suffering from enforcement fatigue, analysts said, made worse by the specter of figuring out how to implement the Council’s resolution calling for a cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon and the eventual disarming of Hezbollah. Iran has emerged stronger from the Lebanon crisis by showing the world that it is capable of wreaking havoc through its support of the Hezbollah militants.

“Lebanon makes this worse because it creates an environment where the Iranians can say, ‘If you push us, we can cause real trouble and heartache for you,’ ” said George Perkovich, director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The Iraq war has demonstrated the peril of going after strong regimes, and Israel’s failure to destroy Hezbollah “erased any doubt people had about what happens when you get real tough with bad actors,” he said.

Going after Iran when Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon all remain unresolved would be an enforcement challenge for world leaders, he said.

(Source: The New York Times)