While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was grabbing the spotlight this week at the United Nations’ General Assembly, Western diplomats were warning behind the scenes that they will circumvent the world body in order to economically pressure Tehran to halt its nuclear weapons program.
European officials in particular have ratcheted up their rhetoric in recent weeks, as frustration has mounted over a recent agreement between Iran and the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency and over the stalling of Security Council negotiations on a new set of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
There has been renewed talk of American or Israeli military action against Iran, and even Paris joined the militaristic threats earlier this month. But several major European powers have indicated that their primary efforts are aimed at lobbying their national financial institutions and energy companies to reduce their presence in Iran, with or without endorsement from the U.N.
“There is a growing feeling that negotiation, not war, is the only solution, but the process is stuck right now,” said a senior European official who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomatic issues being discussed.
Official negotiations with Iran have followed several tracks, including direct talks between key European countries and Iran on the nuclear issue, American-Iranian meetings over Iraq, Security Council discussions on sanctions, and negotiations between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The IAEA negotiations are the only track that has recorded substantive progress of late. The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency reached an agreement this summer with Iran under which Tehran will provide additional information about the nuclear program it admitted to secretly pursuing for nearly two decades.
Washington and several European countries were infuriated by the IAEA deal, and accused IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei of naivety and of undermining their diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis Tehran. Relations between Washington and ElBaradei have been cool for months, with the IAEA chief lately calling for an “end to the pounding of war drums drom those who are basically saying ‘the solution is bomb Iran,’” a reference understood by most to be aimed at the hawkish coterie surrounding Vice President Dick Cheney.
Both Russia and China, which hold veto power at the Security Council, have pointed to the agreement as evidence that Iran is yielding to international pressure and that, as a result, a new council resolution tightening sanctions against Iran is unwarranted at this point. The Security Council passed two such resolutions last year. While American and European diplomats claim publicly that they are working on a new set of sanctions, they privately acknowledge that the odds of success are limited.
In his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Ahmadinejad welcomed what he described as a shift by the IAEA.
“Today, because of the resistance of the Iranian nation, the issue is back to the agency, and I officially announce that in our opinion the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed and has turned into an ordinary agency matter,” he told the annual gathering in New York. He added that Tehran will ignore Security Council demands imposed by “arrogant powers” to curb its nuclear program.
The Security Council has asked Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program, but Tehran has forged ahead in recent months and routinely publicized its progress in this area. While Iran contends its nuclear activities are aimed exclusively at generating electricity, the United States and key European nations believe the program is a cover for an Iranian drive to produce nuclear weapons. Tehran and ElBaradei agreed in July that Iran would answer questions from agency experts by December.
“Baradei is falling into Iran’s trap by giving Tehran some precious time,” said the senior European official. “This gives some leg room for the Russians and the Chinese to avoid new U.N. sanctions in the near future.”
The Security Council deadlock appears to have driven the three European countries leading the talks with Iran on the nuclear issue — France, Germany and the United Kingdom — to pursue their own measures for economically pressuring Iran. They are working to get all 27 members of the European Union to urge large corporations in their countries to stop doing business in Iran.
Over the past year American officials have been conveying much the same message to capitals in both Europe and Asia, and a number of bills in Congress have thrown legislative weight behind the effort.
On Tuesday, the House passed the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act by a 397 to 16 vote. The legislation would enhance sanctions against Tehran by penalizing foreign companies that invest more than $20 million in one year in Iran’s energy sector. The bill also removes a loophole that currently allows the Bush administration to waive sanctions on foreign entities investing in Iran’s energy sector.