Iran's decision to enrich uranium closer to weapons-grade has convinced the United States that sanctions are all the more urgent. President Obama made clear at his impromptu news conference yesterday what the next step is: "We are confident right now that the international community is unified around Iran's misbehavior in this area. How China operates at the Security Council as we pursue sanctions is something that we're going to have to see."
China's United Nations veto power looms large, especially as that country clashes with the U.S. over arms sales to Taiwan and a visit to Washington by Tibet's Dalai Lama. Obama's first choice is to get China to vote yes. Unity among the six negotiating powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States -- on a sanctions resolution would have both economic and political ramifications. The model for this effort is Russia, which has resisted strong sanctions in the past but now seems ready to come aboard." U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told the Daily Beast: "You have to compare where Russia was and where it is now."
A diplomat told the Daily Beast that a Chinese abstention on the U.N. vote may be "inevitable."
Realpolitik, however, could lead to a plan B. This would involve accepting an abstention by China at the U.N., according to a senior diplomat familiar with the negotiations. A second diplomat told the Daily Beast that a Chinese abstention may be "inevitable."
This would not be ideal. U.S. officials feel that a unified stance by the six negotiating powers is the key to showing Iran that the world means business.
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• Reza Aslan: Iran on the BrinkPressure for action has increased as the six have so far failed to reach a compromise agreement to get Iran to ship abroad most of the enriched uranium it has produced, in return for getting fuel it needs to make radioactive isotopes for medical diagnosis. This would have been a "confidence-building measure" to show that Iran's nuclear intentions are peaceful since Iran would no longer have had enough enriched uranium to build a first bomb. Instead, Iran has set off alarm bells by saying it will increase its own enrichment levels in order to make the fuel. Iran's doubling-down at this point by moving to increase the refinement level of its uranium stockpile has mobilized the United States and its allies to feel they must react quickly.
As always with Iran, much is not clear. Is Iranian President Ahmadinejad using the enrichment issue to divert attention from opposition protests expected in the streets of Tehran on Thursday, the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution? Or is he starting to make the fuel for the Tehran reactor that makes radioisotopes as a way to force a deal with the six powers over obtaining fuel? There is definitely some element of bluster. Iran can increase its enrichment level, but it is far from being able to convert uranium into fuel assemblies for a reactor.
Still, there is a sense the time has come to act. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says Washington wants to see more sanctions in weeks, not months. The goal is to target assets of the Revolutionary Guards, the parallel army in Iran which is believed to be pulling the strings in the country, especially after the contested presidential election last June.
France, the chairman this month of the U.N. Security Council, is not sure it can seal the deal in February. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Paris this week: "Is there a major obstacle from our Chinese friends. I fear there will be a long discussion and that, during the French presidency of the Security Council, we are not certain to have the chance to put the resolution to a vote." Kouchner, who met last week with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, said: "We have not yet convinced the Chinese." He added that the West may, in fact, not have the nine votes it needs to pass a resolution on the 15-member Security Council.
A Chinese abstention could make this worse. But it could also be a face-saving measure which would make passing the resolution easier. "The next question is whether China will continue to support Iran economically," says the second diplomat. In other words, if China abstains from the political side of the sanctions resolution, what guarantee is there that it would carry out the economic actions?
Such division, which the international community has avoided in the past by toning down sanctions, is "exactly the kind of controversy the Iranians are hoping for," the diplomat says. The United States and the other five world powers clearly have their work cut out for them if they are to deliver a message to Tehran that, for once, doesn't pull its punches.
Michael Adler, a longtime reporter for Agence France-Presse, is currently a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and is writing a book on Iran's nuclear diplomacy, which he has covered for most of this decade.