Unity lacking for U.N. sanctions against Iran

As many as four countries may refuse to support an expected United Nations resolution imposing new sanctions against Iran, threatening a setback for Western efforts to show a unified international effort, according to foreign diplomats close to the issue.

China’s dislike for sanctions is well known. But in addition, U.N. Security Council members Brazil, Turkey and Lebanon have signaled that they may abstain from a vote this year on new punitive measures, diplomats say. The sanctions, which would be the fourth round since 2006, are aimed at pressuring Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

A new resolution would need only nine of the Security Council’s 15 votes to pass. But the abstentions would be seen as a blow because U.S. officials and their allies want to convince Iran that it faces economic and political isolation if it continues work on its nuclear program.

“The goal is to get consensus, and it’s not going to be easy,” said a foreign diplomat who has been closely watching the issue, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said that although it remains too early to judge the outcome, supporters of the new round of sanctions “are going to need to do some diplomatic work” to reach their goal.

A unanimous vote “would be symbolically much more effective,” agreed Daniel Brumberg, a specialist on the Muslim world at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Russia now is considered likely to support the measure. The other members of the Security Council are the U.S., France, Britain, Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gabon, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria and Uganda.

Iran contends that its nuclear enrichment activities are intended for energy purposes. But U.S. officials and their allies suspect the government is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

In a signal that the Obama administration is aware of the diplomatic challenge it faces, the State Department announced Thursday that its No. 3 official, William J. Burns, who bears principal responsibility for Iran, will visit Brazil on Saturday to meet with senior officials. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to visit Brazil next week, and the issue of Iran is high on her agenda, U.S. officials said.

Officials in Brazil, which is trying to build economic and political ties to Iran, have argued that sanctions would undermine efforts by world powers to resolve the problems diplomatically.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has been trying to raise his country’s diplomatic profile by showing independence from the United States, is scheduled to visit Tehran this year.

But the Iran issue has strained U.S.-Brazilian ties. Without naming Brazil, Clinton has repeatedly warned Latin American countries not to edge too close to the Islamic Republic, which the United States considers a leading government sponsor of terrorism. Venezuela also has ties to Iran.

Turkey, which does $10 billion in trade annually with Iran, its neighbor, has argued that economic sanctions rarely work and that there remains a possibility of a negotiated settlement that would make sanctions unnecessary.

Ismail Cobanoglu, a counselor at the Turkish mission to the United Nations, said it was “premature” to predict the vote because Security Council members are still discussing provisions of a possible sanctions resolution. He acknowledged that leaders of his government have said they are not convinced that punitive measures would work.

For Lebanon, the possibility of sanctions has put the country’s fragile government in a difficult position.

The government’s Western supporters, including the United States and France, would like its support for the resolution. But neighboring Syria and the Iranian-supported Hezbollah militia in Lebanon are strongly opposed, leaving Lebanese officials hoping to avoid the issue altogether.

U.S. officials, with support from such allies as Britain, France, Germany and Italy, want to complete work on the sanctions resolution by April.

They hope to focus the sanctions at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an increasingly powerful element of the government, while taking steps aimed at limiting economic injury to ordinary Iranians.