Key U.N. Security Council nations hedging on calls to sanction Iran

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010; 5:57 PM

UNITED NATIONS -- The United States and its allies face resistance to sanctions on Iran not only from China, but from other influential countries on the U.N. Security Council, principally Brazil, Lebanon and Turkey, raising the possibility of a sharply divided vote on a sanctions resolution.

Lebanon has made it clear that it will not be in a position to support any sanctions resolution against Iran, which has provided military and political support to an influential faction in the government, Hezbollah.

In a show of defiance, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, made a rare public appearance in Damascus with Iranian President Mamhoud Ahmedenijad and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. "Lebanon for internal reasons is unlikely to vote for a sanctions resolution," a senior diplomat said. "I suppose they would rather avoid to take a clear yes-or-no stand on this issue."

Turkey and Brazil have also been hesitant to back sanctions against Iran. In November, the two countries abstained on a vote by the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna censoring Iran for its secret construction of a nuclear facility in Qum. U.N. diplomats fear they will do the same here, particularly if China does so.

The United States and its European allies are confident that they can secure at least 10 votes, including from nonpermanent members Austria, Bosnia, Gabon, Mexico, Nigeria and Uganda -- one more than the nine required for passage in the council. But the failure to secure a united front, particularly from the five veto-wielding members of the council, would send a weak signal to the Iranians, diplomats said.

U.S. and European officials are eager to have the resolution adopted before a May 4-15 review conference on the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which sets the basic rules governing the use of nuclear weapons. One senior diplomat directly involved in the nuclear negotiations said that open-ended debate on Iran could "contaminate the atmosphere" there.

The official said that Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama was "not very conducive" to the talks, but that Beijing may ultimately come around to sanctions. "This is not the last word out of Beijing. We have a good chance that the Chinese position might evolve."

Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg held talks in Beijing with senior Chinese officials this week, but a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated after his departure that China believed that diplomacy had not been exhausted. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Steinberg raised concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to position his government as a key power broker in the Middle East, mediating disputes between Israel and Syria and looking for a similar role in Iran. But Turkish diplomats are concerned that a vote for sanctions would jeopardize its ability to play the role of an honest broker. "They have really raised their level of diplomatic engagement quite dramatically over the last years and the Erdogan government feels that it has a privileged relation to Tehran," said a senior ambassador involved in the talks.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is seeking to position his government as a leader of the developing world, which often sees sanctions as a Western tool of pressure against poor countries. In New York, Brazilian diplomats have voiced concern to their counterparts that the resolution might deprive Iran of its right to possess nuclear power, according to a council diplomat.

On Wednesday, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was in Brazil, Lula da Silva urged the U.S. and its allies to continue to pursue negotiations with Iran. "It is not prudent to push Iran against a wall," Lula da Silva told reporters in Brasilia. "The prudent thing is to establish negotiations."

"I want for Iran the same thing I want for Brazil: to use the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," said Lula da Silva, who will visit Iran in May. "If Iran agrees with that, Iran will have the support of Brazil."

In recent days, the United States, Britain, France and Germany reached agreement on a set of sanctions targeting Iran's banking, insurance and shipping sectors that they hope to include in a U.N. sanctions resolution. They are awaiting a response from Russia and China, which have not agreed to pursue a new round of sanctions in the council.

Vitaly I. Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, told The Washington Post on Thursday that he has not received a response to the proposals from Moscow, and that he has no authority to begin substantive negotiations on sanctions.

But on Tuesday he voiced his country's growing weariness over nuclear negotiations with Iran, saying that Tehran has failed to provide "the appropriate responses that we expected" to peace offerings from the big powers. "Unfortunately, Tehran turned this around to the point where there was no longer any possibility for dialogue. We regret that."

"We are concerned by what we see," Churkin said. "We are concerned by the concerns expressed by IAEA. We are guided by the IAEA; we respect IAEA, so when they are not satisfied with what they see in their cooperation we are obviously also very concerned and this adds up to things which raise worries about the nature of their nuclear program."

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