U.N. censure may start more confrontational phase with Iran

By Glenn Kessler and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009

The resounding censure of Iran on Friday by the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, signals the start of a potentially more confrontational phase in the Obama administration's dealings with the Islamic republic, including the prospect of strengthened U.S.-led efforts to cut off Iran's economic links to the world.

Iran will face a "package of consequences" if it does not soon become a "willing partner" in talks on its nuclear ambitions, a senior U.S. official warned, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We hope Iran takes note of that clear message."

The 35-nation board approved by 25 to 3 a resolution rebuking Iran for its continued defiance of U.N. resolutions that demand a halt to uranium enrichment and other activities U.S. officials think are aimed at developing nuclear weapons. The declaration is particularly critical of Iran's secret construction of a second enrichment plant inside mountain bunkers near the ancient city of Qom, southwest of Tehran.

The resolution, which was supported by China and Russia, two longtime skeptics of taking a hard line against Iran, said the government's failure to notify the IAEA of the project was a "breach of its obligation" under U.N. treaties.

The resolution will be referred to the U.N. Security Council, which has the authority to enact sanctions against the country. During the Bush administration, China and Russia worked to soften sanctions against Iran during negotiations in the Security Council.

Iranian officials called the IAEA resolution "a historic mistake" and threatened to curtail its cooperation with the agency. Tehran has said the nuclear program is intended only to produce electricity.

In devising additional means of pressuring Iran, U.S. officials are focused on making it difficult for Iranian companies to ship goods. They are thus targeting insurance and reinsurance companies that underwrite the risk of such transactions, especially businesses that help support Iran's military elite. Such measures would build on an approach initiated by the Bush administration and by three sets of existing U.N. sanctions against Iran.

"Nothing that we contemplate or that we would consider is aimed at causing greater harm for the Iranian people, who have suffered enough," the U.S. official said.

When President Obama took office, he said that he would seek to engage Iran -- and that Tehran would have until the end of this year to demonstrate it would respond seriously.

Obama reached out in speeches and issued a video message to the Iranian people. He sent two private letters to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader and key decision-maker in matters of security and foreign policy, and joined with Russia and France in offering to help supply new fuel for an aging medical reactor in Tehran. But the missives have gone largely unanswered -- apart from public scorn from Iranian leaders -- and the reactor deal has not won government approval.

After months of effort, one of the few tangible achievements the administration can point to is the willingness of China and Russia to support Friday's resolution. Cuba, Malaysia and Venezuela opposed the measure, six countries abstained, and one was not present.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the vote underscored a commitment by the international community "to enforce the rules of the road and to hold Iran accountable to those rules." U.S. officials had lobbied other countries intensively to support the resolution.

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