With Iraq threatening to unravel if this Sunday's election doesn't go well, and with the war in Afghanistan heating up rapidly (U.S. forces are planning a massive assault on Kandahar to begin in late spring), you'd think that the United States would avoid a confrontation over Iran. You'd be wrong.
World powers meet today in Geneva to discuss the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which last month issued a new report charging that Iran's military plans for nuclear research "seem to have continued beyond 2004" and accused Iran of "current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." It was, to be sure, a rather alarmist report, and the IAEA didn't provide any concrete information or details about Iran's alleged activity. Still, the U.S. is pushing hard for a new round of sanctions at the UN Security Council, and the IAEA meeting today is likely to accelerate that effort by leading directly to a new UNSC debate on Iran.
Secretary of State Clinton has declared that a new resolution at the UNSC will be introduced "in the next 30 to 60 days," giving Washington time to put pressure on Russia to support it and to persuade China to abstain, at least. There are five countries who belong to the current membership of the UNSC who aren't likely to vote yes on Iran sanctions: China, Brazil, Turkey, Lebanon, and Bosnia. Since the U.S needs nine "yes" votes for sanctions, those five aren't enough, although China (and Russia) might still veto sanctions that they consider too harsh. Leaving no stone unturned, Clinton will visit Brazil soon in part to make sure Brazil is on board.
Russia, increasingly unhappy with Tehran, is hinting openly that it will support some form of sanctions. Still, it's unlikely that Russia will support tough measures, and it's virtually certain that China would block anything stronger than a slap on the wrist. (Recently, however, China has signalled displeasure with Tehran's defiance, too, refusing to protest the recent IAEA report and going along with a toughly worded measure by a financial action task force that regulates trade with Iran.) As a possible sign of their displeasure, the Russians have apparently once again delayed the delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems that they're supposed to deliver, by contract, to Iran. The Russian announcement of yet another delay came one day after a visit to Moscow by Israel's prime minister, the Iran-obsessed Bibi Netanyahu.
According to Josh Rogin at The Cable, over at Foreign Policy, the U.S. intelligence community is about to issue a revised National Intelligence Estimate that is expected to "walk back" the conclusion of the 2007 NIE, which said that Iran had halted its work on a bomb while continuing to enrich uranium. But the report says:
"The new estimate might not directly contradict [the 2007] judgment, but could say that while the intelligence community has not determined that Iran has made the strategic decision to build a nuclear weapon, it is seen to be working on the components of a device."
But it isn't at all clear what the United States thinks it can achieve. Can sanctions stop Iran from moving forward if it wants a bomb? Not likely. Most analysts don't believe that sanctions will work. Any sanctions that the UNSC might approve, even with Russian support and China's aquiescence, will be very mild. The Obama administration says that it will go ahead with unilateral or multilateral sanctions (with Europe) that presumably will be a lot tougher than the UN--approved ones. But they'll likely stop short of an embargo on Iran's import of refined petroleum products, such as gasoline. Still, there's a lot that tougher U.S.-EU sanctions might do, in terms of further boxing Iran in on investment and technology it needs across a wide range of industries: oil and gas production and refining, civil aviation, computers and IT, auto manufacturing, etc. All of that can hurt Iran's economy, but will it change Iran's policies? Anything's possible, but it's far more likely that Iran can work toward building a bomb, if that's what it wants to do.