The United States may impose more sanctions on Iran, but is unlikely to go after its oil and gas sector or its central bank, and further UN sanctions against Tehran are unlikely, a US official said on Tuesday.
The official spoke after the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, completed a new report that said Iran has worked on developing an atomic bomb design and may still be conducting relevant research.
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Citing what it called "credible" information from member states and elsewhere, the agency listed a series of activities applicable to developing nuclear weapons, such as high explosives testing and development of an atomic bomb trigger.
"I think you will see bilateral sanctions increasing," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
However, because of Russian and Chinese opposition, chances for another UN Security Council resolution sanctioning Iran for its atomic program are slim, the official said.
"We will be looking to impose additional pressure on the Iranian government if they are unable to answer the questions raised by this report," a second US official told reporters on condition of anonymity. "That could include additional sanctions by the United States. It could also include steps that we take together with other nations."
The United States has long suspected Iran of using its civil nuclear program as a cover for developing a nuclear weapons capability. Iran says its atomic program is peaceful and designed to generate electricity.
Russia and China are likely to oppose a fifth Security Council sanctions resolution against Iran, leaving the United States with few options but to tighten its own extensive sanctions and try to persuade others to follow suit.
"From our side, we are really looking to close loopholes wherever they may exist," the first US official said, adding that US sanctions are so comprehensive that "there is not a whole lot out there other than the oil and gas market -- and you know how sensitive that is. I don't think we are there yet."
Asked where additional US sanctions might come, the official said: "You want to look for other commercial banks, further identify and go after some of these front companies ... we want to try to clamp down on some of that."
Russia, China impediment to further UN sanctions
The official also played down the chances of sanctioning Iran's central bank, which is the clearinghouse for much of its petroleum trade, the mainstay of the Iranian economy.
"That is off the table" for now, he said. "That could change, depending on what other players (think). I don't want to rule that out but it is not really currently on the table."
The official said there were limits to how much pressure the United States, acting on its own, could place on Iran without targeting the petroleum industry or the central bank.
"The reality is that without being able to put additional sanctions into these key areas, we are not going to have much more of an impact than we are already having," he said. Existing sanctions are hurting Iran, he said.
The official said he hoped the latest IAEA report, which was obtained by Reuters, would help to persuade Russia and China that Iran's nuclear ambitions were not benign.
"This report, I think will demonstrate to some of the skeptics, and I am talking of Russia and China, that clearly Iran was involved in a nuclear weapons program up to 2003 and probably is still continuing work in that area."
However, he acknowledged it was unlikely Russia and China, which hold
Security Council vetoes, would back additional multilateral sanctions
and said it may even be hard to persuade them to support a new IAEA
board of governors resolution.
"Hopefully, they will move toward supporting a resolution in the (IAEA)
board but for them to do so it would have to be very anodyne," he
official said. "But the reality is getting further sanctions at the UN
is probably not doable."
Russia, meanwhile, criticized the release of the IAEA report on Iran's
nuclear program, saying it would reduce hopes for dialogue with Tehran
and suggested it was aimed to scuttle the chances for a diplomatic
"We have serious doubts about the justification for steps to reveal
contents of the report to a broad public, primarily because it is
precisely now that certain chances for the renewal of dialogue between
the 'sextet' of international mediators and Tehran have begun to
appear," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
It said time was needed to study the report and determine whether it
contained new evidence of a military element in Iran's nuclear program
or was nothing but "the intentional -- and counterproductive -- whipping
up of emotions".