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Iran: Expert Doubts Impact Of New Sanctions On Nuclear Program

  • Jeremy Bransten --> Shannon Kile of the Stockholm Peace Institute (Courtesy Photo) September 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, is due to wrap up a weeklong meeting in Vienna today that has largely focused on Iran’s nuclear efforts and its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program. Later today in Washington, representatives of the five permanent UN Security Council countries, plus Germany, are due to discuss a possible third round of sanctions against Iran. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten interviewed Shannon Kile, a senior nonproliferation expert at the Stockholm Peace Institute, about the state of Iran's nuclear program and what international sanctions can or cannot do to stop it.

RFE/RL: A possible third round of UN sanctions against Iran will be discussed soon. Can you tell us what the effect has been of the two sets of existing UN sanctions, which mostly target Tehran’s arms industry and its nuclear program?

Shannon Kile: Opinion is actually divided on that. I think the consensus is that it's had some effect. But the effect has been quite limited. And certainly, the two sets of sanctions that have been imposed to date haven't been punitive enough to change the structure of incentives for Iran in terms of persuading it to suspend its uranium enrichment program, as the Security Council resolutions call for.

RFE/RL: Does Iran’s nuclear program rely on imports of technology, or has Tehran become self-reliant at this point?

Kile: Again here, there's not a consensus. My understanding is that Iran is still having to import some types of dual-use items and equipment. The Iranians, for their part, say they have now mastered uranium centrifuge technology, which is really the key issue here. They claim that [the program is] completely indigenous now and that they don't need to import additional equipment from outside the country -- that they have mastered the technology and that they can proceed on their own. I suspect that the Iranians are probably overstating the case somewhat. But to what extent, I just don't know.

RFE/RL: Russia and China have expressed their opposition to a third round of UN sanctions against Iran, so chances that the Security Council will approve any new measures appear limited. Nevertheless, what is being contemplated by the proponents of new UN sanctions?

Kile: It's a tightening, basically, of the existing sanctions. I don't think anyone is talking about something that would be very severe, such as a ban on refined petroleum products imported into Iran. I don't think anyone's talking about that. I think they're talking basically about a tightening of the sanctions that are already in place and extending them to additional companies and commercial entities that are connected, for example, to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. But I don't think we're talking about anything beyond that at the present time.

Separate EU Sanctions?

RFE/RL: France has indicated it favors EU sanctions against Iran that would go further than what the UN could do. What does Paris mean exactly, and will the EU go along?

Kile: What the EU's talking about is extending the existing sanctions and it's important to keep in mind that the European Union actually already has gone beyond the Security Council resolutions to some extent. For example, the language of the [UN] resolutions calls for a reconsideration of travel visas for key figures in the Iranian leadership, which the European Union has interpreted as meaning a ban on those individuals being able to travel. So to some extent the EU has already gone onto its own autonomous sanctions program.

I think what the French are talking about is something which is much more in line with the American position, which is that there need to be more wide-ranging and comprehensive economic sanctions imposed against Iran. And I must say I see no support for that inside the EU. The EU is very badly split on this issue. In fact, one of the noticeable absences in recent months has been [EU foreign policy chief] Javier Solana, because he simply can't make any statements on behalf of the European Union, because the EU member states are so divided on how to move forward.

RFE/RL: Would unilateral economic French sanctions against Tehran hurt the Iranian regime significantly?

Kile: France would have some leverage but of course Germany is really the key trading partner within the European Union for the Iranians. It's by far the largest of the European trading partners for Iran, so the German position is actually more decisive. And Germany itself has indicated that it doesn't see a need for additional sanctions at this point. It hasn't gone as far as the Russians and the Chinese, but it's somewhere between the Russians and the Chinese on the one side and the French and the Americans on the other side.

RFE/RL: The Iranians have repeated again and again that they will not halt their uranium-enrichment program. Are there any sanctions you believe can make them change their minds?

Kile: What I was told by the Iranian delegation at the IAEA [this week] is that there was no set of circumstances under which Iran would give up its uranium enrichment program. And again they emphasized that they've mastered the centrifuge technology, that they are now capable of indigenously producing the centrifuge equipment, including the cascades, that they don't need foreign assistance for it, and under no set of circumstances would they be willing to give that up. They consider that to be an inalienable right, part of their national sovereignty and really -- reading between the lines -- for them it's very much a reflection of Islamic modernity and their place as a modern state in the developed world. So I must confess I think it's going to be very difficult to find any package that's going to make Iran give up its enrichment program.

The Proliferation Threat

The Arak heavy-water plant in central Iran (Fars)

BENDING THE RULES. Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told an RFE/RL-Radio Free Asia briefing on January 9 that the West is hamstrung in dealing with Iran and North Korea because of the way it has interpreted the international nonproliferation regime to benefit friendly countries like India and Japan.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 90 minutes):
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