By Robin Wright and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
The United Nations imposed new sanctions on Iran yesterday, capping a year of difficult diplomacy that may represent the Bush administration's final bid to mobilize international action against Tehran over its controversial nuclear program.
Just five months after President Bush warned that Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons could lead to "World War III," the White House had to settle for a watered-down U.N. resolution that makes most trade and financial sanctions voluntary. The Security Council voted 14 to 0 to sanction Iran for refusing to stop its uranium-enrichment program, falling one short of the unanimous vote the White House sought to signal the international community's resolve.
U.S. diplomacy was undercut by China's growing oil trade with Iran, Russia's ties to Tehran's nuclear energy program and skepticism among four developing countries on the council about the need for yet another U.N. resolution. But Washington's own National Intelligence Estimate in December -- which concluded with "high confidence" that Iran had shelved its nuclear weapons program in 2003 -- did more than anything else to undermine the prospects for a hard-hitting resolution, according to current and former U.S. officials.
In early December, the administration worried that its diplomatic initiative on Iran might die completely.
Although he had been briefed on the NIE's conclusions, Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns was sworn to secrecy before meeting his counterparts from Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany in Paris on Dec. 1 to discuss strategy on Iran, U.S. officials said. Ending months of debate, the world's six major powers agreed on the outline of a resolution, though differences remained on specifics.
Then on Dec. 3, the U.S. intelligence community released the NIE, undermining Washington's long-standing claim that Tehran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
"The NIE put a stake through the heart of diplomacy on Iran," said Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA and national security official now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "It pulled the rug out from under them in every way. The administration now can't go to war and can't even apply much pressure."
In a scramble to keep allies on board, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley called their counterparts in Moscow, Beijing, Paris, London and Berlin to explain why they should not abandon a new resolution, U.S. officials said. The NIE, they argued, was about Iran's past efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, whereas the new resolution would focus on uranium enrichment, a separate and ongoing process that can be used for peaceful energy and to develop a weapon, and an effort Tehran acknowledged hiding for 18 years.
"There was a real concern at the beginning about whether we'd lose the consensus for a sanctions resolution and whether we would be able to hold the coalition together," acknowledged a senior administration official familiar with the diplomacy. "We didn't get into substance. We just wanted to find out: Will they stay with us or not?"
Burns, who had flown from Paris to Australia, was left to get the answers from allies. From Canberra, he got through quickly to the Europeans. "They were all surprised by the NIE," said the official, although in the end they agreed to pursue the U.N. route.
But it took two days for the Russians and Chinese to return Burns's calls. He was about to leave Australia when the Russians called to say they were willing to continue discussions. Just minutes before boarding a plane for the 18-hour flight home, Burns received a call from Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei, who said his country would not abandon the effort.
Then came the hard part of nailing down the details. Iran had already refused to cooperate with resolutions passed in December 2006 and March 2007, and the administration had hoped that the long-sought third resolution would be so tough that it would finally persuade Tehran to give up enrichment and negotiate with the United States and Europeans on Iranian concerns.
But when the six major powers met again in Berlin on Jan. 22, Washington had to back down further to win consensus. Gone were measures against Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite Quds Force. So were provisions sanctioning two of the nation's biggest banks.
Washington had salvaged the diplomatic initiative, though at a cost. The toughest measures in yesterday's resolution include a travel ban on five officials linked to nuclear proliferation and a mandate on countries to "exercise vigilance" about new export credits and transactions with Bank Melli and Bank Saderat.
The new resolution expanded the list of banned dual-use items that can be subverted for weapons development. It also urged countries to inspect cargo on aircraft and ships traveling to and from Iran if they are suspected of transporting goods prohibited by the United Nations. But it offers no enforcement mechanisms for any of the measures.
The Bush administration heralded the 14 to 0 vote, with only Indonesia abstaining, after French President Nicolas Sarkozy won support from South Africa and Libya.
"The international community has spoken with one voice again today. Iran has a choice to make: It can reap the benefits of cooperation with the rest of the world or it can continue to isolate itself and suffer the consequences of the additional sanctions imposed by the United Nations," said Gordon Johndroe, National Security Council spokesman.
Iran responded defiantly, with U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee charging that the Security Council has become "a mere tool of the national foreign policy of just a few countries."
"Iran cannot and will not accept a requirement which is legally defective and politically coercive," he said. "History tells us that no amount of pressure, intimidation and threat will be able to coerce our nation to give up its basic and legal rights." The council's action violated Iran's legal right, enshrined in the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes, Khazaee said.
Iran now has 90 days to suspend enrichment, 30 days longer than in the previous resolutions. But former officials involved in Iran diplomacy said that Resolution 1803 is probably the last one the Bush administration will be able to orchestrate.
"We've come to the end of the line on new initiatives that will move the Iranians significantly," said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department expert on Iran. The Bush administration has "run out of time."
The administration is counting on the European Union to impose its own sanctions on Iran, U.S. officials said. But European officials counter that the weakening of the U.N. resolution will affect the scope of their actions, because many European countries do business with Iran.
Lynch reported from the United Nations.