China, and possibly Russia, seem to be closing the door on Washington's hopes for imposing sharper sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council.
Beijing unexpectedly canceled its attendance at a meeting set for today of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. Citing scheduling rather than political difficulties, the Chinese effectively scuppered the chance to agree a common line on tough new sanctions.
Neither the Chinese nor Russia favor heavily sanctioning Tehran. Regional expert Peter Lehr, explaining Beijing's reluctance, notes that "China has invested billions of dollars into Iran with regard to oil and gas, [and] it's assisting them in building up their infrastructure -- so basically China needs Iran to secure their energy supplies."
Moscow has also blown a hole in the sanctions plan by announcing that it will soon begin the process of supplying nuclear fuel for the Iranian nuclear plant at Bushehr.
The Russian-built plant is not yet finished. But the Russian state-run fuel supplier TVEL said on November 16 that it has arranged with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for inspectors to oversee next week the verification and sealing of the fuel containers ready for shipment to Iran.
Russia's willingness to make such a delivery at the very height of the nuclear controversy is a clear indication that Moscow is not interested in more sanctions.
In any event, the United States -- impatient with Chinese and Russian foot-dragging at the UN -- is moving along a parallel path, namely to create a coalition of countries willing to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran.
Washington already has an extensive program of financial disincentives in place to dissuade foreign bankers and investors from dealing with Iran, and it wants other countries to do the same.
It has a newfound partner in France under President Nikolas Sarkozy, who has said force may eventually have to be used on Iran. Sarkozy has closely aligned his views on Iran with those of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted by "Haaretz" on November 18 as saying that Iran is one the gravest threats facing the world today. Kouchner said it's essential to press ahead with sanctions.
In light of the increasing tensions, Iranian Nobel Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi today called on Iran to suspend sensitive nuclear activities to avert the "serious" threat of a U.S. military attack. In an interview with Radio Farda, Ebadi also called on Iranians to join a "national peace campaign," and urged Washington to work within international law in dealing with Tehran.
"What we want is that the two sides should respect international law," Ebadi said. "The United States cannot have the right to deal with Iran outside the framework of international law, and Iran cannot build a wall around itself and say, 'I have nothing to do with international law,' and pay no attention to Security Council resolutions."
No EU-Wide Agreement
European Union foreign ministers met in Brussels today to consider the sanctions question, and France and Britain were pressing for an EU-wide policy of sanctions. That's not likely, however, because of the difficulty of reaching agreement among the 27 union members, some of whom do not support a sanctions approach.
Paris-based European security analyst Walter Posch says the issue could be highly divisive for the EU. Posch said the risk of a split over policy on Iran may not be as dramatic as the divisions over the war in Iraq, but Britain could again find itself in opposition to France and other EU members.
A new factor in the nuclear equation is a possible role for Switzerland. Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey confirmed that her country is seeking to facilitate direct negotiations between Iran and the United States.
She did not say who had approached Switzerland to play that role, but she noted that traditional Swiss neutrality puts it in a key position to mediate the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program.
Switzerland has represented U.S. diplomatic interests in Iran since Washington broke relations with Tehran in 1979.
Meanwhile, Iran's Arab neighbors have unveiled a plan to have Switzerland act as a custodian for enriched uranium, which would be supplied as required to Middle East countries with peaceful nuclear programs.
That would ensure reliable supplies to countries like Iran, while removing the suspicion that it was secretly developing nuclear arms. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on November 18 that he will closely study the program.
But going by previous experience, Ahmadinejad might merely be raising false hopes, as he has consistently said Iran will never give up its right to develop its own enriched uranium supplies.