Acting nearly a year after its last sanctions resolution on Iran, the United Nations Security Council on Monday approved a moderate step-up in measures intended to pressure Iran into suspending its nuclear work as demanded on previous occasions. After a spate of last-minute lobbying—and reported objections by Russia about possible action against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna—the Security Council voted 14 to 0 for the resolution, with one abstention from Indonesia.
But even on a day of long-sought diplomatic achievement, some Bush administration officials reflected frustration at the slow pace and at times painful dickering that characterized the path toward Monday's sanctions resolution—the third against Iran. The last such measure, approved in March 2007, called for considering additional action on Iran if it did not comply within 90 days.
Monday's resolution calls for freezing assets of companies and individuals—about a dozen each—named as being linked to Iran's ballistic missile or nuclear programs. Trade-in items thought to be useful in those programs, along with foreign travel by several involved Iranian officials, are also to be barred. The resolution also allows inspections of equipment going to or from Iran that is believed to be part of the suspect programs.
Russia and China, with significant economic interests in Iran and concerns about the hard-line U.S. position, slowed the diplomatic process and ensured that the new round of sanctions would be only modestly tougher than those in the past. It also proved difficult to persuade several nonpermanent Security Council members, such as South Africa, Vietnam, Libya, and Indonesia. A U.S. official called some of those countries the "axis of slowness."
The sense of a diplomatic win was tempered. "The Iranians have beat the international community back so hard," said the U.S. official. "The snail's pace [of diplomacy] is letting them enrich uranium. They're playing us all."
The wrangling over Iran, for the moment, is now likely to shift to Vienna. A presentation there by IAEA staff last week fired new concern about Iran's alleged activities related to learning how to fashion nuclear fuel into warheads. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has called on Iran to answer all of the remaining questions on the issue, which may lead to an IAEA board resolution later this week that would strengthen the demand.
Iran denies any improprieties and has labeled the information presented last week a set of fabrications. The new controversy at the IAEA could affect what the nuclear watchdog has said was improved Iranian cooperation on other issues related to past nuclear fuel work.
No one, it seems, thinks the Monday U.N. resolution—and any other action from the IAEA—is going to force any near-term changes in Iran's defiance. Officials in Tehran have branded this and past rounds of sanctions illegal. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent Monday visiting his country's once archenemy Iraq, where he gave no indication that Iran would change course.
"We've known from the beginning that...sanctions are a very difficult weapon to use," a senior European official said recently. For the time being, the official said, "our impression is that this situation will go on."