Key players: The people with power to impose sanctions over Iran's nuclear program

Susan E. Rice has a heavy burden as the U.S. ambassador.
Susan E. Rice has a heavy burden as the U.S. ambassador. (Seth Wenig - AP)
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By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

UNITED NATIONS -- A highly critical report on Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency last week has led to stepped-up calls from the United States and Europe for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Tehran. The West still faces a strenuous battle to win over China, which has insisted on the need for further negotiations aimed at persuading the Islamic republic to place its nuclear program under greater international control.

Here is a guide to the key players among U.N. ambassadors who will be negotiating what Washington hopes will be the fourth round of sanctions.

-- Susan E. Rice: United States.

Rice is the only U.N. ambassador who serves in her government's foreign-policy cabinet, placing her in a unique position to help shape her government's policy toward Iran. But this will mark her first major role as a negotiator on the Iranian nuclear crisis, pitting her against Russian and Chinese envoys who have traditionally resisted tough sanctions against Iran. Rice will be looking to sanction Iran's central bank and press for targeted travel and financial restrictions on officials and businesses linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. State Department officials have sought to dial back expectations that Rice would be able to secure support from China and Russia for the kind of "crippling sanctions" the Obama administration once promised. "We are committed to working with other nations to address the very serious dangers posed by Iran's nuclear program and its failure to meet its international obligations," Rice said.

-- GĂ©rard Araud: France.

France's former political director oversaw his government's Iran policy from 2006 until last year and has played a central role in crafting the previous three Iran sanction resolutions.

Now in New York, Araud has been pushing a harder line than the Americans, advocating an expanded arms embargo and sanctions on Iran's oil revenue. Araud recognizes that any U.N. sanctions resolution that emerges from the Security Council will be weak but that it will provide political cover for tougher sanctions from the United States and Europe. A former French ambassador in Tel Aviv, Araud suspects that Israel may be willing to launch a military strike against Iran if sanctions fail to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions. "A military confrontation could not be excluded," Araud told students last month at Columbia University.

-- Li Baodong: China (incoming).

All eyes are upon China. But nobody seems to know whether China is prepared to engage in a discussion on sanctions or to even assign an official to negotiate with the West. China's designated point man on Iran, He Yafei, is set to move to Geneva to serve as China's U.N. ambassador there, and he has been a no-show at recent big-power talks on Iran.

Li Baodong, who currently heads Beijing's embassy in Geneva, will become China's new U.N. ambassador when he presents his credentials Thursday. No matter who represents Beijing, the Chinese are expected to take a hard line. Given its growing commercial links to Iran, China is considered the toughest obstacle to strict sanctions.

-- Vitaly Churkin: Russia.

Churkin is a scrappy negotiator and a skillful public debater who once served as Russia's foreign-policy spokesman. Russia has only grudgingly agreed to impose sanctions on Iran in the past, arguing that it would be better to focus on negotiations with Tehran. But Moscow has grown alarmed at Iran's increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile program. Russian criticism of Tehran has sharpened since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejected an offer last year to swap low-enriched uranium for fuel for an Iranian research reactor that produces medical isotopes. U.S. and European diplomats say they have received assurances from Moscow that it is now ready to pursue sanctions against Tehran. Still, Russia is always something of a wild card, and the West can count on Churkin to at least try to water down any final resolution and strike any language that could be used by Israel or the United States as a pretext for future military action.

-- Sir Mark Lyall Grant: Britain.

Like his French counterpart, Lyall Grant has also served as his government's point man on Iran sanctions. He has grown deeply skeptical over what he sees as Iran's repeated pledges to pursue a negotiated settlement to the nuclear crisis. But Lyall Grant has played a fairly low-key role in public. "I think you can see there's clearly this pattern of violations of international obligations and an unwillingness of Iran to negotiate seriously with the international community over the nuclear issue," he said recently.

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