US Steps Up Sanctions Diplomacy Against Iran

Faced with an increasingly impatient Congress and a defiant government in Tehran, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is currently stepping up its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East as it seeks to prepare the ground for tougher sanctions on Iran.

A main goal, if not the main, is to persuade Sunni Arab states in the region to supply China’s energy needs so that Beijing gets on board Western plans for more sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

As senior administration officials have ratcheted up their sanctions rhetoric, the White House has dispatched four envoys to the Middle East. Top of the list is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is currently on a tour of the Gulf countries, where she has visited Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Also visiting the region this week will be Undersecretary of State William Burns, who will talk to officials in Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. James B. Steinberg, a Clinton aide, was to leave for the region last weekend to meet with Israeli and Egyptian officials, while Jacob J. Lew, another Clinton lieutenant, is bound for the region next week, according to the New York Times.

"We are planning to try to bring the world community together in applying pressure to Iran through sanctions adopted by the United Nations that will be particularly aimed at those enterprises controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which we believe is, in effect, supplanting the government of Iran," Clinton said Monday during a town-hall-style meeting in Qatar.

The new diplomatic buzz comes as some members of the U.S. Congress are taking a more aggressive attitude toward Iran, proposing even tougher sanctions than what the White House intends. Legislators put a strong emphasis on the need to also link sanctions to Iran’s human rights abuses.

The administration reportedly opposes that, fearing it could alienate China, a major opponent of tougher sanctions on Iran.

But China also opposes more sanctions because of its extensive commercial ties with Iran.

China has now surpassed the European Union as Iran’s leading trade partner, with an annual trade volume of $36.5 billion in 2008, while the EU’s trade with Iran totaled $35 billion for the same year, according to London’s Financial Times. In return, Iran supplies 11 percent of China’s energy needs, according to the Iran-China Chamber of Commerce.

Recognizing the importance of Tehran to Beijing’s soaring energy needs, Clinton’s visit is aimed at urging Arab states in the Gulf to provide oil to China in the event of sanctions so Beijing will drop its opposition to Western plans for harsher sanctions. It is not clear yet whether the Gulf Arab countries have agreed to the U.S. proposal.

Iran’s nuclear program has not only been a source of controversy in the Western world but also among Arab countries and Israel. Sunni Arab countries and Israel are wary of Iran’s influence with groups and states across the region, such as Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and even Shia populations in the Gulf.

They doubt Iran’s nuclear activities are for peaceful energy purposes and charge that Iran is seeking a nuclear bomb. Iranian officials have repeatedly rejected claims about the weaponization of their nuclear program and alleged interference in the affairs of other countries.

The rising tide of sanctions rhetoric comes after Iran did not respond to a Western proposal to send 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium to France and Russia in return for 20-percent enriched uranium, enough for Iran to operate a medical research reactor in the capital Tehran.

Last week, on the 31st anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a large crowd in Tehran that Iran is now a nuclear power, as its scientists had succeeded in enriching uranium to 20 percent. Western officials disputed the claim, saying Iran could not have made such rapid progress.

"It is not a nuclear power. I can understand why Ahmadinejad would make that assertion to divert the world’s attention from the abuse of the civil liberties and civil rights of the people of Iran," U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told MSNBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday. "The progress that Iran has made on the nuclear front is greatly exaggerated in my view."

Now the U.S. is keen to pass more sanctions on Iran at the United Nations Security Council while France, a strong opponent of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, is holding the rotating presidency of the Council this month.

However, it is not clear whether Western countries will manage to get everyone in line in time to pass sanctions this month. The very scale of sanctions is expected to be a source of controversy between the U.S. and its Western European allies, on the one hand, and China and Russia, on the other hand.

But the U.S. might be using another card to pressure China to join the sanctions chorus: Israel.

"If the Chinese government thought that Israel is more likely to use military force against Iran if sanctions are not passed, that would increase the likelihood that China would go along with tougher sanctions against Iran," said Raymond Tanter, a member of U.S. national Security Council under President Ronald Reagan and head of the Iran Policy Committee (IPC).

"So on the one hand, you have the Chinese being offered the option to replace Iranian oil with Saudi oil. And on the other hand, you have Israeli threats to use military force against Iran being taken more seriously by the Chinese government. If Israel would use force against Iran, then there is going to be oil interruption in the Gulf," he said.

Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear installations if the international community fails to restrain Iran’s nuclear progress. But some experts believe it is unlikely that Israel could launch such an attack at this time given the fragile conditions of the global economy and the possibility of a new global recession as a result of surging oil prices in the event of military strikes.

With domestic opposition on the streets of Tehran, in U.S. policy circles, some hope sanctions would provoke a popular uprising to bring down the Islamic Republic, a controversial idea that appears to be gaining renewed popularity in Washington – although former President George W. Bush unsuccessfully pursued it for years.

Tanter and his IPC colleagues advocate supporting exiled Iranian opposition groups like the Mujahedin-e-Khalq to achieve regime change in Tehran. But that runs counter to the administration’s current policy of considering MEK a terrorist group.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mohammed A. Salih

Mohammed A. Salih writes for Inter Press Service.