A divided U.N. Security Council tightened sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program Wednesday, but left widespread doubt that the new strictures would slow the regime’s nuclear program or force it to the negotiating table.
Whereas the vote allowed President Obama to claim a narrow win after months of haggling, it also divided world powers in a way that made the prospect of future sanctions seem more remote and a solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions more uncertain.
Iran, which tried to stave off the new sanctions with months of frenetic diplomacy, dismissed their importance. But even supporters of the Islamic Republic acknowledge that the vote represents a defeat for Tehran’s establishment. Under international pressure, however, Iranians tend to put aside their differences and support the government.
The Security Council voted 12-2 with one abstention to adopt sanctions that further limit arms sales to Iran, restrict the overseas operations of its banks, add more Iranian companies to a blacklist, and authorize searches of ships going to or from Iran that might carry items related to its nuclear program.
Despite last minute lobbying from Western powers, Turkey and Brazil voted against the measure; Lebanon abstained.
The sanctions, the fourth such round since 2006, are aimed at forcing Iran to halt a nuclear program that Western powers allege is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran insists the expanding program is only for peaceful uses.
President Obama said the U.N. resolution would “put in place the toughest sanctions ever faced by the Iranian government, and it will send an unmistakable message about the international community’s commitment to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.”
U.S. officials emphasized the importance of Russian and Chinese support for the sanctions, but their votes came at the cost of watering down the resolution.
“These are not the crippling sanctions that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had promised about a year ago,” said James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration.
The United States had hoped to sharply curtail foreign financial services available to Iran and Iranian enterprises. But the sanctions approved Wednesday don’t bar many financial services, including insurance or reinsurance, to Iranian individuals or companies. They don’t limit the Islamic Republic’s ability to produce or export oil.
Although the sanctions ban the sale of many heavy weapons, countries still will be allowed to sell weapons outside those categories. For instance, Russia still may sell sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, which have been a source of concern to the United States.
Many of the provisions are in essence optional. Governments can limit financial services provided to Iran by companies under their jurisdiction if the services are believed to aid certain nuclear activities.
The resolution also says that governments may inspect ships on the high seas suspected of carrying forbidden items, but only if they have the consent of the country to which the ship is registered.
“The United States is not going to get anything approaching universal compliance with these ‘optional’ sanctions,” said analysts Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann, Middle East experts who were aides to former President George W. Bush.
The Obama administration hopes to multiply the effect of the sanctions by spurring others to impose new and tougher restrictions of their own. European Union officials will meet in a few days to consider expanding their list of banned military goods and to tighten enforcement, said George Lopez of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
In addition, the Obama administration is expected to give the Treasury Department more authority to punish foreign banks and other companies that do business with Iran.
Congress also has been pressing for a U.S. ban on petroleum sales to Iran. Under such a ban, the U.S. government would penalize foreign companies selling to Iran.
But the White House, fearful that such an approach would alienate allies, is expected to resist that approach. Some Democrats in Congress may be willing to delay the implementation of those rules to first see whether the new sanctions have an effect, Lopez said.
Unilateral and national sanctions also could hurt international diplomatic efforts. Russia and China have signaled that they oppose the imposition of any further bilateral sanctions affecting Iran’s economy or trade.
The Russian Foreign Ministry warned Wednesday against national sanctions that punish foreign companies.
Israeli officials hailed the Security Council resolution, but said it would not by itself change Iran’s policies and must be augmented by tough steps by individual nations.
“It must be accompanied by meaningful steps in other international forums and at the country level,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said. Some Israeli experts said that without additional sanctions, the Security Council steps had no chance.
“Certainly, this will make life a bit more difficult,” said Ephraim Asculai, senior research fellow and nuclear arms expert at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank in Tel Aviv. “But Iran is sophisticated enough to overcome this and continue forward. Iran is buying time.”
The Iranians have proven adept at working around previous sanctions or finding ways to adjust to them. Iran used to import 40% of its refined petroleum from abroad, but now that number is less than 25%, Lindsay said.
The Obama administration faces a continuing diplomatic fallout from its dispute with Turkey and Brazil over their efforts to negotiate a deal that would have averted the latest round of sanctions. Under the deal, Iran agreed to send some of its uranium out of the country for reprocessing.
The United States persuaded other key world powers to reject the initiative, but the effort undermined Western attempts to show a unified international front against Iran.
Even though that failed, Lindsay said Tehran has now regained diplomatic momentum. Its expectations “that the new sanctions can be beat” will encourage more “defiance and bluster” in response to Wednesday’s resolution.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visiting Tajikistan, rejected the sanctions as worthless.
“These resolutions you pass against us are like used handkerchiefs that should be thrown in the trash bin,” he said, according to the semi official Iran Students News Agency.
It was unclear how the latest rounds of sanctions would play out in Iran, which faces possible protests this weekend coinciding with the one-year anniversary of Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection.
All of the Islamic Republic’s major political factions support Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology. The program was restarted under the 1980s under then prime minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who is now leader of the opposition. But the disputed elections and violent aftermath have soured many on those now in power.
Mousavi and his reformist allies have been harshly critical of Ahmadinejad’s confrontational foreign policy. Iran’s moderates say Tehran pursued a nuclear program for nearly two decades without incurring the wrath of the Security Council until Ahmadinejad came along.
Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.