Skip to content

Can UN's latest Iran sanctions be a game-changer?

Washington - President Obama wasted no time in hailing Wednesday's passage by the UN Security Council of a resolution targeting Iran's nuclear program as "the toughest sanctions ever faced by the Iranian government."

While that may be true, almost no one believes that the new resolution - any more than three before it targeting Iran - will on its own stop Iran's nuclear program.

What the resolution does, some nuclear and Iran experts say, is increase the cost Iran pays - both diplomatic and financial - for pursuing a nuclear program that much of the world community (including crucial Iranian commercial partners Russia and China) has deemed to be in violation of international requirements and a threat to international security.

And that, in turn, may eventually affect the path Iran takes with its nuclear ambitions.

"Is this going to change Iran's behavior? In the short term, no," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. "But what the resolution has the potential to do, especially given the Russian and Chinese votes [in favor], is change the calculations in Tehran over the value of pursuing their nuclear program in the manner they've chosen," he adds. "To start with, it's going to become more difficult [for Iran] to get the parts and materials it needs to continue advancing."

In his statement on the resolution's passage, Mr. Obama said the measure "sends an unmistakable message about the international community's commitment to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons."

But beyond whatever message-sending it accomplishes, the resolution is expected to serve as a kind of springboard from which countries - such as the United States, or members of the European Union - can advance other, more biting measures against the regime in Tehran.

Within hours of the resolution's passage, members of Congress were lining up to tout the Security Council's action as the catalyst for proceeding to final approval of Iran sanctions legislation that has passed both houses of Congress.

US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire called on the Senate to "move quickly on its own set of sanctions on Iran" and urged "our partners in Europe and around the world to do the same."

European Union members are scheduled to meet June 20 to consider additional sanctions on Iran.

In his own statement, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut called the UN resolution "a valuable stepping stone" to the "stronger sanctions" needed to increase pressure on the Iranian government. "Precisely because the UN sanctions are not strong enough to convince Iran's leaders to change course," he added, "it is imperative that we in Congress put in place legislation that is as strong as possible, including mandatory sanctions that target both Iran's energy sector and its financial sector."

The draft resolution the Obama administration originally offered at the Security Council included sanctions on Iran's energy sector, but those were stripped out over Russian and Chinese objections.

Indeed, the expectation that the UN resolution would not affect Iran's nuclear course was a common theme among foreign-policy analysts reacting to the council's action.

"These are not the crippling sanctions that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had promised about a year ago," says James Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "The end result," he adds in a commentary on the resolution, "is that the high-stakes game of chicken over Iran's nuclear program will continue."

Melissa Labonte, an international relations expert at Fordham University, calls the resolution "pure window-dressing." It is, she says, "unlikely to bring Iran to the negotiating table and probably won't stop the Iranians from developing military nuclear capacity."

The Arms Control Association's Mr. Kimball says that because Iran is almost certain not to alter its course immediately as a result of the UN action, "It's important to remember that there is still time for diplomacy to work."

Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium is "not enough to create a strategically significant nuclear arsenal," he says. He believes that Iran "remains years away from a deliverable nuclear weapons arsenal."

Just how much time the international community has for diplomacy to alter Iran's nuclear ambitions will remain a hotly debated question, but the image of a window still open for a diplomatic solution was repeatedly employed in Western capitals Wednesday.

In a statement on the resolution's adoption, the foreign ministers of the Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany said the council's action "keeps the door open for continued engagement between [the six powers] and Iran."

In a lengthy statement to the Security Council before Wednesday's vote, Iran's UN ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, concluded by saying that "no amount of pressure and mischief will be able to break our nation's determination to pursue and defend its legal and inalienable rights." Iran "will never bow to the hostile actions and pressures by these few powers," he said.

Seeming to disregard those words, the six foreign ministers said, "We expect Iran to demonstrate a pragmatic attitude and to respond positively to our openness towards dialogue and negotiations."