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In Iran, Sanctions vs. Diplomacy

Can the U.N. Security Council keep the U.S. from disrupting a diplomatic victory?

UN Security Council, photo by Patrick Gruban

United Nations Security Council chambers in New York City.

Photo by Patrick Gruban

The United States' crusade for new U.N. sanctions against Iran has been underway for a long time. But the new intensity, the scurrying around to make sure China and Russia are on board, and the scramble for an immediate public announcement all reflect Washington's frustration with the new agreement with Iran brokered by Turkey and Brazil. That agreement requires Iran to send about half of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in return for somewhat higher-enriched prepared fuel rods for use in its medical reactor, which is pretty close to what the U.S. and its allies were demanding of Iran just months ago.

So the harsh U.S. response—condemning the agreement as "just words," demanding that Iran make even more concessions, implying that only a complete and utter Iranian surrender would suffice—makes it clear that U.S. policy towards Iran isn't about an actual nuclear weapons threat, but about power politics. There’s no question the United States is really mad: Reports are circulating around the U.N. that Washington is up to its old habits of issuing implicit threats against the two upstart diplomatic powers. Brazil has been angling for a permanent Security Council seat and Turkey has long been trying to join the European Union. No dice on either one, U.S. diplomats seem to be hinting. The focus remains firmly on sanctions rather than diplomacy.

But new U.N. sanctions are not going to stop Iran's nuclear enrichment, which is still legal under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and still monitored by U.N. nuclear inspectors. Instead, as with economic sanctions against any country with a repressive government, they're far more likely to impact the civilian population. The Brazil-Turkey initiative, on the other hand, actually takes major steps towards transferring much of Iran’s enriched uranium out of the country, increasing international oversight of its nuclear power program and, if allowed to go forward without U.S. interference, could well lead to a significant diminution of Iran's future enrichment. If that were really the goal of the U.S. anti-Iran mobilization, you'd think Washington would be pleased. Instead, many in Congress and the Obama administration appear to be working as hard as they can to undermine the Brazil-Turkey initiative, even though (or maybe because) it might lead to a resolution of the current crisis.

New U.N. sanctions could derail the new tripartite agreement. But there's one thing that could prevent that danger: a renewed independence in the U.N. Security Council. U.S. pressure seems to have won promises from Russia and China that they won’t veto a harsh new sanctions regime—but that's not the same as a promise to vote for the sanctions.

If current council members Brazil and Turkey can convince some of their allies to resist U.S. pressure, abstentions by Russia and China (and maybe even France?) could allow a new "coalition of the unwilling" to prevent the sanctions simply because not enough countries voted for them.

Led by Brazil and Turkey, non-permanent Council members (whom the U.S. and the other veto-holders rarely consult on Iran policy) could stop a sanctions move in its tracks. Can President Lula and Prime Minister Erdogan convince a country like Japan, which has more reason than most countries to want to abolish nukes, to vote against useless sanctions and instead give the new diplomatic initiative time to work? Might other Council members (Lebanon, Mexico, Austria, Gabon, Bosnia, Nigeria) be persuaded that a new round of sanctions will do nothing to stop Iran's enrichment, but will undermine a new initiative that might do just that?

The U.N. Security Council said no to U.S. and British pressure in late 2002 and early 2003, when Washington and London tried to coerce Council members to endorse President Bush's war in Iraq. That time, Germany, France, and Russia led the opposition, and the "Uncommitted Six" (Guinea, Cameroon, Angola, Pakistan, Chile, and again, Mexico) refused. Shortly after the Six said no, on February 15, 2003, the world "said no to war" in massive protests in 665 cities around the globe. Washington and London backed down and announced they were giving up their campaign for a U.N. endorsement.

The Security Council stood defiant once before to try to stop a U.S. war. Maybe it can do so again, so that U.S.-led U.N. sanctions don’t destroy the best diplomatic solution we’ve seen for a very dangerous crisis.
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Phyllis BennisPhyllis Bennis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Phyllis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer.

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