An Iran sanctions primer: Where the central players stand

With the UN gearing up to debate how best to penalize Iran, it’s time Israel really understood what to expect.

Obama serious 311 (photo credit: AP)
Obama serious 311
(photo credit: AP)
To paraphrase Chairman Mao, a nuclear journey of 1,000 weeks does not end with a single sanction step.  That, at least, is the assessment in Jerusalem following a couple of fast and furious weeks where each day brought a new twist and turn in the drive to get the world to back sanctions against Iran that will have impact. Whatever sanction regime emerges, or doesn’t emerge in the upcoming months, the current sense in Jerusalem is that this will just be another act in a very long drama, but by no means the denouement.
The last two weeks have witnessed a high level Israeli delegation’s visit to China to convince it of sanctions; the Chinese Foreign Ministry saying more “diplomatic efforts” were needed; US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying months may be needed before more sanctions will be passed through the UN Security Council; Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev saying Russia backs sanctions, but not against civilians; Iranian’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, apparently feeling the heat, threatening to cut off oil to Europe; and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry saying that the parade of high level US visitors continuing to march through Jerusalem want to ensure that the US and Israel remain on the same page on this critical issue.
On the eve of US Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Jerusalem next week, where Iran will loom extremely large on the agenda, it is instructive to take a look at where some of the main players – from an Israeli perspective – stand on the issue.
The US: According to assessments by key players involved in the issue in Jerusalem, what Washington is looking for right now is a fourth round of UN Security Council resolutions that is as wide as possible to send an unmistakable message to Ahmadinejad: “You are completely isolated.” A wide sanctions resolution, however, means a watered down sanctions resolution, with the target not being Iran’s energy sector – as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been loudly advocating for the last two weeks – but rather Iran’s banking system and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Coming up with this resolution takes a lot of diplomatic work, as well as time. The work is being done by the State Department, which dispatched Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg to China (he was in Israel last week), and Clinton to Brazil.
The US is working with all the 15 UN Security Council members – temporary members Turkey, Brazil and Lebanon are proving the most problematic – and it is something that takes time.
If there was a sense at the beginning of the year that sanctions would be brought to the Security Council in February, when France – a backer of tough sanctions – held the presidency, that has since given way to Clinton’s assessment on her way to Brazil that it could still be months before anything comes to the council.
The US, from Jerusalem’s point of view, is willing to dilute the sanctions to bring in as many countries as possible, believing that it is more important for Iran to see the world aligned against it, rather than adding in an element that would chase some key countries away.
The Security Council is one track. Another parallel track that the US is working on is to throw much tougher sanctions – the ones that won’t get past the Russians or Chinese in the Security Council – into another basket of sanctions to be agreed upon by “like-minded” nations, including the US, Canada, EU, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
But even there, there is no unanimity on the type of sanctions that should be used. While Kerry said clearly he “absolutely” supported energy related sanctions, the Obama administration is not yet at that point, saying it wants to punish the Iranian government, not the Iranian people. The issue is still a source of debate inside the EU as well.
The tightrope that the US is trying to walk is to apply a dosage of sanctions that the Iranians will feel without closing the door on possible negotiations.
Israel believes that a diplomatic option – meaning getting the Iranians to back down through negotiations – is a lost cause, and that the only thing that will work will be crippling sanctions or military action (though no one will say that publicly). The US is not there yet.
The difference between the US and Israeli positions, one official said, is not a difference of intelligence over when the Iranians will have the capability to produce a bomb, but rather how to best use the time before that point.
Both Washington and Jerusalem are looking at the same data, but whereas the US has come to the conclusion that there is still time for diplomatic pressure, and that the heat could be turned up at different stages if the Iranians do not respond positively, the Israelis believe what is needed now is paralyzing sanctions, and that anything short of that will simply not work.
Time is more pressing when you are viewing things from just across the Jordan River, rather than from near the Potomac, one source quipped this week.
And it is this difference of perception that is behind the slew of high level US visitors. The US wants to ensure, as Kerry said candidly during a Jerusalem press conference this week, that the two sides continue speaking from the same page and that Israel not do anything rash.
One of the reasons for the stream of visitors, Kerry said, “is to make sure we are all on the same page, that we are all clear about what time frames may exist, or may not exist, what threat levels maybe be real or not real, or what options may be on the table for us.”
The US, a senior Israeli source said, “wants to keep things under control. It is clear that Washington doesn’t want to be surprised by us. They have their schedule, they want to take troops out of Iraq in August and don’t want anything to mess that up, so they have to keep everyone on board with their policy.”
And that, in short, will be Biden’s primary goal when he meets Netanyahu next week.
China: A high level Israeli delegation – led by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer – went to China last week and gave the Chinese an in-depth, up to date intelligence briefing on the Iranian nuclear program. They also warned the Chinese, who are completely dependent on Mideast oil for their economic growth, of the economic costs of instability and “nuclear chaos” that would emerge from a nuclearized Iran.
Two days later Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, “We believe there is still room for diplomatic efforts and the parties concerned should intensify those efforts.”
So, then, was the Israeli mission a failure? Not necessarily.
China’s baseline position – thinking of its own delicate domestic political situation – is to refrain from interference in the affairs of other countries: No pressure, no sanctions, yes to the use of diplomacy.
At the same time, the widespread assessment in Jerusalem is that China – one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with a veto, the others being the US, Britain, France and Russia – will not use that veto because it is concerned about its image and wants to be seen as a responsible member of the international community.
Part of the purpose of the Israeli visit, followed by that of Steinberg, was to come up with a draft of sanctions that the Chinese can influence, and – as a result – support. Beijing does not want to be seen as bowing to US dictates, but if it has a sense that it is able to impact on the language of the resolutions, it may be willing to back them.
The Chinese, like the Russians, understand that a nuclear Iran – which will trigger a Middle East nuclear arms race – is not in their interest because it will disturb stability and equilibrium As long as they could deny that the nuclear Iranian intentions were of a military nature, they were willing to turn a blind eye. But today, after the revelations of the secret nuclear enrichment plant at Qom, it is increasingly difficult for them to deny that the Iranians are after nuclear military capabilities.
A telling headline appeared in the English-language China Daily after Ya’alon’s visit: “No immediate change seen in china’s Iran stance.” But the feeling in Jerusalem is that while the change is not immediate, it might come later on. The door is open, one official said, the Chinese are listening and have yet to have reached a final decision. But the decision, he said, was not over using a veto against sanctions, but rather about whether to support or abstain.
Russia: On Monday in Paris, President Dmitry Medvedev gave his clearest indication to date that Moscow would back sanctions, even while saying these sanctions should be “smart” and “not target the civilian population.”
Even though this was far less than a full-throated backing of sanctions hitting Iran’s energy sector, Israeli officials liked to look at the “good news” in Medvedev’s comments: “They are on board.”
Moscow, according to assessments in Jerusalem, took advantage of the revelation of the secret uranium enrichment plant in Qom last year to cross the Rubicon. If it was in denial about Iran’s true intentions before that revelation, Qom changed its mind.
Up until this point, the Russians had other interests to weigh whenlooking at the Iranian nuclear issues: They wanted to challenge the US;they had economic interests in building an Iranian nuclear reactor andsupplying the missile systems to protect it; and they reached a certainmodus vivendi with Teheran whereby Moscow would stay to the side onthis issue, and the Iranians wouldn’t cause trouble for the Russians intheir Islamic areas, such as the Caucasus and Chechnya.
What Medvedev’s comment signaled was that Russia was moving to theconclusion that keeping a nuclear weapon out of Iran’s hands was also aRussian interest, and in fact actually it trumped the others.