The United States plans new, tough sanctions on Iran, especially its petrochemical industry, after the International Atomic Energy Agency said Friday there was credible evidence Tehran was seeking nuclear weapons.
The U.S. national security adviser, Tom Donilon, said yesterday Iran's isolation is now "unprecedented". Speaking to reporters while accompanying President Barack Obama to Indonesia, Donilon said the United States, China and Russia wanted to ensure that the Islamic Republic does not develop nuclear weapons.
The IAEA report Friday stopped short of referring Iran to the UN Security Council or setting a deadline for Tehran to comply with the UN nuclear watchdog's request for additional information. But 32 of the 35 members of the agency's board backed the text of the resolution stating that there is "credible evidence" that Iran was trying to build nuclear weapons.
The resolution did not refer to punitive measures or send the matter to the Security Council for action, reflecting the balance between Western powers eager to crank up pressure on Iran and two major powers, Russia and China, which have taken a milder stance.
The resolution expressed "deep and increasing concern about the unresolved issues regarding the Iranian nuclear program," and urged Iran to return to talks and restrain its nuclear work as outlined by prior Security Council resolutions.
The United States praised the IAEA for passing the resolution. The White House said the agency "spoke with a unified voice" when it held Tehran accountable for its "failure to live up to international obligations."
Iran rejected the report, with its envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, saying his country was now more determined to continue its uranium enrichment activities. He said Iran would not attend an upcoming UN atomic forum that will focus on efforts to create a nuclear-free Middle East.
Soltanieh accused the nuclear agency of endangering the lives of Iranian scientists by releasing their names in an annex to last week's report. "The release of the names of the Iranian nuclear scientists by the agency has made them targets for assassination by terrorist groups as well as the Israeli regime and the U.S. intelligence services," he said in a letter to the IAEA's director general, Yukiya Amano.
The U.S. sanctions are expected to be announced tomorrow and build on measures against the country's oil and gas industry. The idea is to limit foreign investment in the sector, and other Western countries are expected to follow suit with similar measures.
Since the IAEA report, the United States has been trying to rally international support for new sanctions against Iran. But U.S. efforts to target Iran's central bank have met with obstacles because China, Japan and other countries use it to process purchases of Iranian oil.
Another problem is that the White House is reluctant to take steps that would send oil prices sharply higher, something that would sting the U.S. and European economies.
Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois is sponsoring legislation to impose sanctions on Iran's central bank. Kirk said the Obama Administration is "not taking any real action against the Central Bank of Iran or other parts of the nuclear program of the Islamic Republic of Iran and then telling everyone else that they shouldn't do anything either."
Adam Szubin, director of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said at a House hearing last week that the central bank sanctions could actually benefit Iran while hurting the U.S. and global economies by causing oil prices to spike.
Meanwhile, the IAEA report stepped up talk of a potential Israeli attack, a move that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week would have a "serious impact" on the Middle East and possibly on American forces in the region, without seriously disrupting Iran's nuclear program.
But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said Friday the military option is not off the table. "I don't choose to talk about our discussions with our Israeli partners, but I will tell you we are on a dual-track approach, economic and diplomatic, with never taking the military option off the table. And I think that's the right place to be," he said when asked what the message to Israel would be about a potential military strike on Iran's nuclear program.
Meanwhile, several hours after the IAEA resolution was approved in Vienna, Iran suffered another blow at the United Nations, when 106 countries voted in favor of a resolution condemning Iran for the attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Forty countries abstained and only eight voted against.