A Major Push for More U.N. Sanctions on Iran

But frustrated by Russia and China, the White House may need a different approach.

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As the Bush administration embarks on an intensive week of diplomacy over Iran's nuclear programs, it faces formidable obstacles in winning a consensus at the United Nations Security Council for tough sanctions with enough bite to, perhaps, persuade Iran to halt its suspect nuclear work. Russia and China are opposing new sanctions for now. And keeping all of the traditional U.S. allies—Britain, France, and Germany—fully on board could prove difficult.

On Friday at the State Department, the No. 3 U.S. diplomat, Nicholas Burns, convened a gathering of counterparts from all six countries involved in the Iran effort, both to take stock of current U.N. sanctions and, for his part, to lobby for a new round of stronger ones. Next week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet with foreign ministers from the same countries to look for a way forward. And President Bush, in New York next week for U.N. meetings, will use some of his time there to do the same. "You'll see a big push on this," vows a senior administration official.

But the heavyweight investment of time and effort may not move Russia and China very far, at least for the next couple of months. Both countries appear determined to wait and see whether an August 21 deal brokered by Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, for improved Iranian cooperation with IAEA inspectors will show sufficient progress to avert further moves to punish Iran. The Bush administration is annoyed with ElBaradei, in part because his deal does not demand—as the Security Council has—that Iran suspend the enrichment of uranium.

Though the administration insists it will proceed with diplomacy, coupled with financial pressures, the same senior official concedes that the Russian and Chinese stands are "frustrating and a disappointment to us."

Some other officials, also insisting on anonymity, show a much deeper frustration with the trajectory of the U.S.-led diplomacy. "It's obvious that the U.N. Security Council sanctions process is leading nowhere," complains one. "It's become clear that further meaningful progress in the Security Council is now impossible.... Everyone hoped diplomacy would have been more successful than it's proven to be."

Adds yet another U.S. official, "Clearly, the U.N. is not willing to muster its consequences."

Such skepticism belies the administration's public stance that it will stay the course with patient diplomacy. President Bush this week described himself as optimistic that diplomacy will ultimately work.

At the same time, the administration is beginning to talk more about applying sanctions cobbled together with like-minded nations—outside of the United Nations—if Iran does not suspend its nuclear work and come to the negotiating table. Already, State and Treasury Department officials have been traveling the globe in a campaign to persuade banks and other financial institutions to cut off their dealings with Iran, as well as urging other companies to rethink their investments in the country. That effort appears to be resulting in a decline in loans and loan guarantees to Iran, as well as investment in Iran, from Europe.

Some U.S. officials are also hinting that President Bush will eventually be forced to consider military strikes, along with other measures, if Iran does not yield. Yet Iran shows every sign of digging in its heels. "They [Security Council powers] thought that by issuing any resolution Iran would back down," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said this month, as he made the questionable claim that Iran now has 3,000 centrifuges running. "But after each resolution, the Iranian nation took another step along the path of nuclear development."

U.S. officials had hoped that Iran's continued defiance would lead Russia and China to join in backing a third, more damaging sanctions resolution by now. But it hasn't happened. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that Russia supports the IAEA effort to secure Iranian cooperation. He also opposed French suggestions that if the Security Council cannot act, the European Union should intensify its own sanctions on Iran. "We want this [IAEA] process to conclude unimpeded," Lavrov said. "We well remember what the ignoring of the professional opinion of this agency led to in the situation with Iraq four years ago."