The foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany agreed Tuesday to impose additional sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
The decision's importance is primarily symbolic, since the planned sanctions will have little impact on Iran's economy. Nevertheless, they show that the international community remains suspicious of Iran's nuclear ambitions, despite the publication two months ago of a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate claiming that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program.
That estimate had been widely interpreted, especially in Iran, as signaling international acquiescence to Iran's uranium enrichment program, which it has refused to halt despite the Security Council's repeated demands.
Iran claims that this program is strictly for civilian purposes, but enrichment is also a key element of any nuclear weapons program.
The proposal finalized by the U.S., British, French, Russian, Chinese and German foreign ministers will now be submitted to the full Security Council for approval. Should the council endorse it, this will be the third round of international sanctions against Iran.
A French diplomat involved in the talks said that the resolution is slated to be brought to a vote in the Security Council before the end of the month. However, other diplomats stationed at the UN were less optimistic, saying it is still not clear that Russia and China have dropped their fundamental opposition to further sanctions, and therefore, the vote might be delayed.
Since the foreign ministers decided not to publish the contents of their decision, the details of the proposed sanctions remain unclear. However, the main components will apparently be additional travel restrictions on Iranian officials involved in the country's nuclear and missile programs, and additional freezes of assets, such as bank accounts, belonging to such officials or to companies and organizations involved in these programs. Both previous sanction rounds "blacklisted" specific individuals and organizations in this fashion, and the current round apparently expands the blacklist.
U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, who attended the talks, said that Washington was very pleased with the decision, because it expands the sanctions and proves that the six nations remain united.
While Washington has sought tougher sanctions than were ultimately agreed on in all three rounds, it attaches paramount importance to showing that the international community is united on this issue, and has therefore consistently been willing to accept watered-down resolutions.
The fact that even Russia and China, Tehran's traditional protectors on the Security Council, approved the new round of sanctions attests to the level of international unease about Iran's intentions. Even the NIE acknowledged that Tehran's ongoing enrichment program, along with its continuing efforts to purchase nuclear components overseas, indicates that it has not given up its quest for nuclear weapons.
Israel and the U.S. will begin the latest installment Wednesday of their strategic dialogue, which will be devoted entirely to efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear program. At the talks, headed by Burns and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Israel will submit proposals for additional sanctions against Iran, both within and outside the Security Council.
Next month, the International Atomic Energy Agency's board will hear a new report on Iran's nuclear program by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. The report is expected to shed additional light on the program's history, which in turn could clarify how quickly Iran is advancing. It will also focus on how well Iran has cooperated in answering the agency's questions about its nuclear program.
Israeli intelligence agencies believe that the program is not as far along as Tehran's public statements would indicate, and that Iran is having trouble operating enough centrifuges to enrich sufficient fissionable material for a bomb. Nevertheless, the agencies believe that Iran will overcome this technical hurdle by next year or the year after at the latest.
Shlomo Shamir and Barak Ravid contributed to this report.
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