US intensifies push for further UN sanctions on Iran

The Bush administration is pressing for tough new UN Security Council sanctions at a meeting in London today of the five permanent members—the US, Britain, France, Russia and China—plus Germany. The demand for a third UN resolution is one more step in Washington’s campaign to vilify Tehran over its nuclear programs and to justify US preparations for a military strike on Iran.

The White House effectively preempted the UN Security Council by announcing its own unilateral measures on October 25 branding the entire 130,000-strong Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as “a weapons proliferator” and the IRGC’s Quds Force as a “terrorist” organisation. Harsh US sanctions were applied not only to the IRGC, which has extensive business interests, but also against more than 20 Iranian companies and three of the country’s major banks.

The chief target of these new US sanctions is not so much Iran, but America’s economic rivals in Europe and Asia—in particular, the other powers present at today’s talks. Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China all have significant investment in, and trade ties with, Iran. The Bush administration has not only made it illegal for American banks and corporations to have dealings with the IRGC, but is implicitly threatening economic retaliation against foreign banks and companies that do the same.

The London meeting will be dominated by the same American bullying. US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns set the tone by declaring yesterday that Washington wanted a new round of UN sanctions imposed soon. He was particularly critical of Russia and China for “effectively blocking a third resolution” after Iran refused to comply with the second passed in March.

“We do hope Russia and China will come with a serious demeanor and with the basic attitude that progress has to be made [on a resolution]. It’s time for Russia and China to re-engage.... The credibility of the [Security] Council is on the line here,” Burns told the media.

US relations with Russia have deteriorated markedly over a range of issues, including the Bush administration’s aggressive moves against Iran. A fortnight ago Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran for the first time by a Russian or Soviet leader since 1943. Prior to the trip, Putin told the media on October 10 that there was “no objective evidence to claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons”, in effect undercutting Washington’s allegations that Tehran is building a bomb.

In Iran, Putin pointedly declared his opposition not only to “the use of force but also the mention of force as a possibility”. This was a reference to Bush’s repeated declarations that “all options are on the table”, that is including the military one. Putin’s comments provoked a response from the White House that underscores just how brittle relations between the major powers are. After dismissing suggestions of a US-Russian rift, Bush issued an extraordinarily blunt warning to America’s rivals that Iran’s nuclear programs had to be stopped “if you are interested in avoiding World War III”.

While the outcome of today’s meeting will no doubt be announced in suitably diplomatic language, what happens behind closed doors is a different matter. Russia has followed up Putin’s trip with a brief, unannounced visit by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Tehran on Tuesday. Lavrov said that he had urged the Iranian regime to continue working with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to clarify outstanding questions surrounding its nuclear programs. In a shot aimed at Washington, he stressed that further sanctions would not help the situation.

Russia and China both opposed additional sanctions in late September, insisting that the IAEA be given time to implement an agreement reached in August with Iran to answer all unresolved issues. The Bush administration opposed the IAEA deal and bitterly criticised IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei for overstepping his brief. The US has been exploiting a series of outstanding questions about Iran’s nuclear programs—some of which US and Israeli intelligence have been directly involved in concocting—to insist that Iran shut down its Natanz enrichment plant even though such a program is permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The IAEA has held a series of meetings with Iranian nuclear officials. Most recently IAEA deputy chief Olli Heinonen flew to Tehran this week to discuss Iran’s use of more sophisticated P-2 gas centrifuges in the enrichment of uranium. Iran’s chief negotiator Javad Vaeedi said yesterday that Iran had given the IAEA “the necessary information” to remove any ambiguities about this aspect of the country’s nuclear activities and that both sides had been satisfied by the discussion.

IAEA chief ElBaradei is due to report on the agreement with Iran by mid-November, but he declared on Sunday that he had “not received any information that there is a concrete, active nuclear weapons program going on right now.” He emphasised that the IAEA had found no nuclear material that could be made into a weapon and expressed his concern about the “building confrontation, because that would lead absolutely to a disaster. I see no military solution.”

The following day, the White House dismissed ElBaradei’s comments, declaring that Iran was “enriching and reprocessing uranium and the reason that one does that is to lead towards a nuclear weapon”. But if uranium enrichment automatically led to building an atomic bomb, it would have been barred under the NPT and countries like Brazil would also be in the UN spotlight for building a uranium enrichment plant. Washington’s targeting of Iran’s nuclear programs is completely hypocritical, given that US allies such as Israel, Pakistan and India have refused to sign the NPT and have built and tested atomic bombs.

US Undersecretary of State Burns underscored Washington’s opposition to the IAEA-Iran agreement yesterday when he made clear that the IAEA’s clarification of outstanding issues would not stop further sanctions. “Our judgement is that if Iran has not suspended [uranium enrichment] in the next couple of weeks, that’s not sufficient, it will remain a refusal to meet Security Council requirements. That will be a highly relevant factor for us,” he said.

As in the case of the WMD lies told to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US is stepping up its lurid claims about Iran’s nuclear programs as a possible pretext for an American military attack. The White House has no interest in the IAEA proving that Iran has no weapons programs and regards ElBaradei’s efforts as a time wasting exercise that impedes its own agenda. As a number of commentators have noted, time is running out for the Bush administration with the 2008 US presidential election just a year away.

Washington’s threats of war against Iran are motivated above all by US ambitions to secure domination over the Middle East and Central Asia. Iran not only has huge reserves of oil and gas, but is also strategically located between these two resource-rich regions. While Russia, China and the European powers have established economic ties with Iran over the past decade, the US has maintained an effective economic embargo of the country. To boost American influence, the Bush administration is seeking to install a more sympathetic, pro-US regime in Tehran.

While they now oppose the imposition of further sanctions on Iran, Russia and China along with the rest of the UN Security Council helped the Bush administration’s propaganda machine by passing two resolutions demanding that Tehran shut down its nuclear programs. Moreover, despite the statements of Putin and Lavrov, it is possible that Russia could do so again—in return for US concessions on other issues. As far as Beijing and Moscow are concerned, the fate of the Iranian people is no more than a useful bargaining chip in their relations with Washington.

Britain and France have also lined up behind the Bush administration’s menacing threats against Iran and called for the EU to impose sanctions on Iran, if the UN fails to. Germany, however, has been more equivocal. After meeting with his Israeli counterpart yesterday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier declared: “Germany’s position does not differ from that of the United States and some other European countries. If Iran refuses to provide answers, we should think about the possibility of European sanctions.” The emphasis on “providing answers”, rather than suspending enrichment as the US demands, suggests that Germany, which is Iran’s largest trading partner, is hedging its bets on further sanctions.

In the final analysis, the Bush administration may simply dispense with all the diplomatic manoeuvring in the UN Security Council. For more than a year, the White House has been concocting an alternate casus belli with a stream of allegations claiming that the IRGC and its Quds Force have been training, arming and supporting anti-occupation militias in Iraq. In his September report to Congress, General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, alleged that Tehran was already fighting “a proxy war” against the US in Iraq.

A border clash with Iran, a naval encounter in the Persian Gulf or some other US-engineered provocation could easily become the pretext for putting US plans for a massive air campaign against Iran into operation.