NEW YORK - The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously yesterday to impose tougher sanctions on Iran to push Tehran to meet the international community's demand that it suspend its nuclear enrichment program.
Also, yesterday, Tehran escalated its rhetoric, maintaining that the 15 British naval personnel arrested by Revolutionary Guard units in the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway on Friday had "confessed" to entering Iranian territorial waters in an act of "blatant aggression."
The Security Council approved a ban on Iranian arms exports and a freeze of the assets of 28 additional people and organizations involved in Iran's nuclear and missile programs. The list includes Sepah, a government-owned bank.
"This resolution sends an unambiguous signal to the government and people of Iran ... that the path of nuclear proliferation by Iran is not one that the international community can accept," said British Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry.
Iran has vowed the sanctions will only motivate it to pursue nuclear power, a message Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was expected to deliver to the Security Council.
Mottaki made the trip instead of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed he canceled his appearance because the U.S. failed to deliver his visa in time.
The new sanctions - a compromise between the stronger measures favored by the United States and the Europeans and the softer approach advocated by Russia and China - are considered modest.
The Security Council imposed its first set of sanctions in December, but Iran responded by expanding enrichment. Iran says it will never give up its right to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel, though it has offered to provide guarantees that its nuclear program won't be diverted toward weapons.
Ahmadinejad had said he wanted make those arguments before Security Council himself, but Iran accused the United States of thwarting his planned trip by delaying the delivery of his visa. U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the visa arrived in time and suggested the Iranian president was unwilling to stand before the Council and take the heat for his continued defiance of the international community.
In December, the Security Council ordered all countries to stop supplying Iran with materials and technology that could contribute to its nuclear and missile programs and to freeze assets of 10 key Iranian companies and 12 individuals related to those programs.
The new resolution calls for voluntary restrictions on travel by the individuals subject to sanctions, on arms sales to Iran and on new financial assistance or loans to the Iranian government.
It asks the International Atomic Energy Agency to report back in 60 days on whether Iran has suspended enrichment and warns Iran could face further measures if it does not. But it also says all sanctions will be suspended if Iran halts enrichment and makes clear that Tehran can still accept the package of economic incentives and political rewards offered last year if it complies with the Council's demands.
In a key compromise, the document refers to a past resolution from the IAEA calling for the Middle East to be free of weapons of mass destruction. Indonesia and Qatar had wanted the council to make that appeal outright, but the U.S. intervened, adopting instead an IAEA statement that "a solution to the Iranian nuclear program would contribute to international efforts against nuclear proliferation including efforts relating to the Middle East."
Meanwhile, Iran has moved the 15 British seamen it has held in custody since Friday to Tehran for interrogation.
The British Marines and sailors were arrested after having completed a search of a merchant ship Friday morning in the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway.
Britain immediately demanded the return of its troops and denied they had strayed into Iranian waters.
In London yesterday, Foreign Office undersecretary Lord Triesman spent more than an hour with the Iranian ambassador to London, Rasoul Movahedian, demanding the safe return of the 15 and seeking assurances of their welfare and consular access.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett and the Ministry of Defense said the troops were in Iraqi waters at the time they were picked up.
In June 2004, six British Marines and two sailors were captured, then paraded blindfolded on Iranian television. They admitted they had entered Iranian waters illegally but were released unharmed after three days.
Iranian hard-liners have already called for the 15 Britons to be held until Iran wins political concessions from the West.
British opposition lawmakers called on the government not to allow Iran to use the capture of the military personnel as a tool in the nuclear dispute.
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