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.
"If Iran refuses to meet its obligations, then it will be responsible for its own growing isolation and the consequences," Gibbs said.
Administration officials emphasized that they are not ending engagement and that they have not withdrawn any proposals. But there is a palpable sense of disappointment within the administration that Iran has not responded more affirmatively.
At a meeting in Geneva on Oct. 1, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns met at length with a top Iranian official, and Iran signaled tentative agreement to the reactor deal and to begin further talks on its nuclear program. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman later that month held talks in Vienna on the reactor proposal. Under the proposal, Russia would convert much of Iran's enriched uranium into reactor fuel, and France would take that material and fashion it into the metal plates used in the facility, which produces isotopes to detect and treat diseases.
But Iran has since refused to commit to the agreement or even agree to further talks. "So far, we haven't gotten positive or constructive answers from the Iranians," the U.S. official said. "And it's difficult to sustain that kind of engagement when you're not getting any kind of constructive responses."
Russia lately has shown some impatience with Iran, slowing cooperation on a nuclear facility it is building in Bushehr and delaying missile deliveries, but China continues to build economic links with the country. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao declared this year that his government would seek "close coordination in international affairs" with Iran and that "cooperation in trade and energy has widened and deepened."
Still, China decided to back the IAEA resolution -- and helped draft it -- after two senior White House officials recently traveled to Beijing and warned that Israel could bomb Iran, leading to a crisis in the Persian Gulf region and almost inevitably problems over the very oil China needs to fuel its economic juggernaut.
Ray Takeyh, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar who until recently was a senior adviser on Iran policy in the State Department, said, "There is a certain degree of impatience in American diplomacy. We have elevated Iran to a level of extreme danger, which it is not, and created a crisis atmosphere, which is unwise." When President Richard M. Nixon first reached out to China, it took that country a year and half to respond positively, he noted.
"The Iranians may come back in March with a counterproposal," he said. "No deal ever dies in Tehran. The Iranians never say yes or no."
Iran's representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, suggested that Tehran would stop some of its voluntary cooperation with the agency, according to a report by the semiofficial Fars News Agency. "This resolution is a historic mistake by those who designed it," Soltanieh was quoted as saying.
It was unclear what specific steps, if any, the government would take in response. Iranian analysts said it would probably not withdraw completely from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires states to submit to international inspections, or shut down cameras that allow the IAEA to monitor activities at nuclear facilities in Iran. The analysts said Iran might stop providing certain technical information about plans for new nuclear sites or make it more difficult for IAEA inspectors to obtain visas.
"I don't believe they will go as far as taking down the cameras. It is not in our interest to stop cooperation on critical trust-building issues," said an Iranian analyst who is close to former nuclear negotiators, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Correspondent Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran contributed to this report.