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Iran: Diplomatic Efforts On Possible Sanctions Intensify (Part 1)

Iran is the world's fourth-largest oil exporter (AFP) The United States and European Union want to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions over its controversial nuclear activities -- activities the West says could lead to Tehran making nuclear weapons. But what would sanctions entail? And could they be effective -- or enforced? Some analysts are skeptical, but diplomatic efforts to devise a package of punitive measures are already under way.

PRAGUE, 18 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The EU and United States say they support referring Iran to the Security Council unless Iran renounces uranium enrichment -- a process for making nuclear fuel that can also be applied toward developing a nuclear weapon.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is set to discuss the question at an emergency meeting in Vienna on 2 February.

The Shape Of Sanctions

If the IAEA agrees to send the Iran nuclear crisis to the Security Council, the discussion there could turn to ways to try to force Iran’s compliance, including through sanctions.

"No country is dependent in its energy requests, its energy demands, upon Iran. [But] the Iranian oil industry, for instance, they need to export oil not only for the cash, but also to get back refined oil products like gasoline and other products because they don’t have enough refinery capacity." -- Benn

But what might UN sanctions on Iran look like -- if Russia and China did not prevent the Security Council from eventually imposing them?

A report in the Israeli daily "Haaretz" today offers one view. It says Israel, which sees Iran’s nuclear program as one of the Jewish state’s main security threats, has presented proposals for sanctions in ongoing talks with the United States, EU, and Russia.

Aluf Benn, the author of the "Haaretz" report, said the main sanction Israel has proposed would be an embargo on Iran’s oil trade. Iran is currently the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter and experts say such an embargo would send already-high world oil prices skyrocketing. But Benn said Israeli experts believe the cost of the embargo for Iran would be far higher.

"No country is dependent in its energy requests, its energy demands, upon Iran. [But] the Iranian oil industry, for instance, they need to export oil not only for the cash, but also to get back refined oil products like gasoline and other products because they don’t have enough refinery capacity," Benn told RFE/RL. "And also, the Iranian economy is totally dependent upon oil exports. Therefore, Iran might be hit even more than the rest of the world -- if an oil embargo is indeed imposed."

The Enigma Of Russia

Benn said the Israelis see Russia as key to imposing and enforcing sanctions. He said that for that reason, Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland and Atomic Energy Commission Director Gideon Frank are in Moscow today to discuss the issue, including talks with Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, or Rosatom.

Russia says it shares European and U.S. concerns over Tehran's recent decision to resume nuclear fuel research.

But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 17 January that Russia is not ready to join moves for Iran to be referred to the Security Council.

Some Symbolic Measures

Still, according to Benn, no country has so far rejected Israel’s draft sanctions out of hand. The "Haaretz" reporter said that Israel’s other proposals include symbolic steps, such as restricting landings by Iranian civilian airliners or halting UN nuclear assistance.

"Some proposed sanctions in the package are more symbolic, like banning the Iranian soccer team from the World Cup, or not granting visas for Iranian officials like [Iranian] President [Mahmud] Ahmadinejad, after all his hate speeches against Israel and the Jews and the Holocaust; or against Iranian officials involved in the nuclear program, and so on," Benn said.

The Israeli strategy, Benn added, is to have the package ready to go the moment the international community makes a decision to impose sanctions.

Enforcement Issues

But some analysts are skeptical. Ian Kemp, an independent London-based defense analyst, said enforcing any trade embargo would be problematic. He suggests it would possibly benefit smugglers in countries that border Iran.

"If there are any form of sanctions imposed against Iran, needless to say, there would be some military involvement, Kemp told RFE/RL. "If, say, it was to be a trade embargo or an embargo on shipping materials that could be used for nuclear development, you would expect U.S.-led and other naval forces to be involved in any form of an embargo. But it would take the cooperation of all of the states which border Iran for any form of sanctions to be effective."

Another analyst, Ben Faulks, is not sure such cooperation would be forthcoming. An analyst with the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, Faulks also sees risks in a military enforcement scheme.

"There are risks, obviously, that that might become a flashpoint for a direct confrontation if the Iranians take [action] against that. Obviously, the U.S. would be very exposed to Iran’s southern border, the coastline, and the Iranians could take direct action there. It’s a very difficult thing to try and enforce, particularly if important economic powers are not at all keen on that sort of idea, given their growing dependence on consumption of hydrocarbons. I’m talking particularly about China, but also about India," Faulks told RFE/RL.

Multilateral Or Bilateral?

But Benn of "Haaretz" said the Israeli sanctions proposal is not wholly contingent on Security Council support. The United States already sanctions Tehran, with which it has no diplomatic or direct economic relations. He said other countries could hurt Iran if they applied the sanctions bilaterally.

"Most of the Iranian trade is with Europe or with Russia. So that’s why these countries are key to any embargo, to any sanctions. But the idea is that even if the EU and Russia and several other key trade partners of Iran take part in the sanctions -- then that’s the option, if the Security Council fails," Benn said.

Whether the question even goes before the Security Council looks set to be decided at the IAEA emergency session on 2 February. Benn said Israeli officials believe Russia will abstain from voting at that meeting.

Iran rejects U.S. and European accusations that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, in violation of its international treaty commitments. Iran says it wants to exercise its right to peaceful nuclear power.

The second part of this two-part series on the West’s possible responses to the Iranian nuclear crisis looks at options for military action against Tehran.

(RFE/RL correspondent Ronald Synovitz contributed to this report.)

Iran's Nuclear Program

Iran's Nuclear Program

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.