With increasing signs that several fellow Security Council members may stall a United States push to penalize Iran for its nuclear enrichment program, Bush administration officials have indicated 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 controversial 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, which could provide fuel to produce electricity or possibly atomic weapons, or face penalties.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov said Friday 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” -- the 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 was “not satisfactory” but France wanted to avoid a new conflict that could lead to “a clash of civilizations.”
“But 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 civilizations that France today is practically alone in trying to avoid.”
U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said in an interview late this week that the United States 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 seemed optimistic that China and Russia would agree to it once they saw the text. “Everybody’s been on board,” he said.
But in case Russia and China do not accept it, the U.S. is working a parallel diplomatic track outside the U.N., Bolton said.
Under U.S. terrorism laws, Washington could ramp up its own sanctions, including financial constraints on Tehran and interception of missile and nuclear materials en route to Iran, Bolton said, and the U.S. is encouraging other countries to follow suit. “You don’t need Security Council authority to impose sanctions, just as we have,” he said.
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 United States also initiated the Proliferation Security Initiative, involving a coalition of countries that have agreed to intercept 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 was focusing on European and Japanese banks to restrict business with Iran, because most of Tehran’s transactions are done in U.S. dollars, euros, British 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 details on which countries might be interested, citing the “sensitivity” of the talks.
But Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said they had already seen results, including Union Bank of Switzerland cutting off 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.
Though U.S. officials said pursuing parallel paths is “common sense” and highlights what they consider to be 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 were fatigued by dealing with so many conflicts and didn’t want to add Iran to a list that includes 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.”
Russia and China have specifically objected to the use of a U.N. charter measure known as Chapter 7 that would open the door to military action or sanctions. But Bolton said that a resolution on North Korea passed unanimously in July might create a new template for dealing with those concerns.
That resolution instituted a ban on supplying technology and goods related to North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, and got around China’s and Russia’s doubts about Chapter 7 with other legally binding language that would prevent an Iraq-style invasion.
“There are some aspects of the North Korea resolution that will be useful,” Bolton said. “A lot of this is just going to have be played out.”
Times staff writer David Holley in Moscow contributed to this report.