After Obama’s Strong Push for Sanctions on Iran, Administration Starts to Dampen Expectations

By Patrick Goodenough | April 15, 2010 | 4:17 AM EDT

President Barack Obama welcomes Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the nuclear security summit in Washington on Monday April 12, 2010. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Dmitry Astakhov, Presidential Press Service)

( – President Obama expended considerable energy this week urging international support for fresh U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities, but with continuing resistance from some influential countries, the administration is signaling that it will likely have to scale back its expectations.
On Friday, the presidents of the two permanent Security Council members least in favor of tough sanctions, China and Russia, will meet with another leading sanctions critic, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Their summit in Brasilia  -- which also involves India, a nation that also is dubious on sanctions -- is expected to focus extensively on Iran.
Also scheduled to visit Brasilia at the weekend is Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who will hold separate talks with da Silva on Iran, Turkey’s Today’s Zaman reports.
Brazil and Turkey, both non-permanent members of the Security Council, have emerged as the most outspoken opponents of sanctions against Iran, a country with which both Brazil and Turkey have deepening ties.
Obama met briefly with da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit in Washington Tuesday, and both voiced unchanged opposition to sanctions.
While neither Brazil nor Turkey have veto power reserved for permanent Council members, Russia and China have used their clout as permanent members to water down three previous sanctions resolutions, and are widely expected to do it again as talks on a fourth one continue in New York.
Asked during a Senate Armed Services committee hearing on Wednesday whether China would agree to sanctions “that would have meaningful effect,” Undersecretary of State William Burns said he believed it was possible.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did not hide his own skepticism. “[The Russians and Chinese] have been playing rope-a-dope with us for now over a year so I’ll be very interested to see if your optimism comes true,” he told Burns. “I see no justification for it.”
McCain said the earlier rounds of sanctions against Iran were, “in the view of most observers, ineffective.”
Burns acknowledged that Iran was “working hard with members of the Security Council against” a new sanctions resolution.
Obama’s meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev this week brought no indication – in public at least – that either government was willing to consider anything other than mild sanctions.
“Sanctions and pressure are not the fundamental way out,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Jiang Yu said Tuesday. “Relevant actions of the U.N. Security Council should be conducive to the turn-around of the situation and proper settlement of the issue through dialogue and negotiation.”
In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Medvedev said that if measures against Iran were necessary, “I do not favor paralyzing, crippling sanctions.” He also stressed the importance of getting “universal” support, singling out the need to have China and Latin America on board.
Top administration officials once used terms like “crippling” to describe the measures necessary in response to Iran’s defiance, and Obama just a fortnight ago expressed optimism that “robust” U.N. sanctions were possible.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks to the media alongside his Peruvian counterpart, Rafael Rey, in Lima, Peru on Wednesday April 14, 2010. (DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison)

But remarks by Defense Secretary Robert Gates Wednesday pointed to a lowering of expectations, as he suggested that the adoption of a Security Council resolution was of greater importance than the actual measures it contained.
“What is important about the U.N. resolution is less the specific content of the resolution than the isolation of Iran by the rest of the world,” he told reporters during a visit to Peru.
Gates said a resolution could be a “legal platform” or a “launching pad for more specific sanctions” outside the U.N. framework, by countries or groups of countries.
“Sanctions aren’t a magic wand,” Obama told reporters earlier.
“What sanctions do accomplish is hopefully to change the calculus of a country like Iran so that they see that there are more costs and fewer benefits to pursuing a nuclear weapons program,” he said at a press conference at the end of the nuclear summit.
Iran’s turn to host
Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Wednesday’s Armed Services committee hearing that once Tehran had taken a decision to make a nuclear bomb, it could accrue sufficient weapons-grade uranium in one year to do so.
An additional three to five years would likely be needed to manufacture and test a usable weapon, he said.
Iran hid its nuclear activities from the international community until exiled regime opponents exposed them in 2002. Over the years since, it has insisted on its right to develop a nuclear energy and research program while denying that it has any plans to use the technology or the material it is producing for military purposes.
Under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), countries have the right to peaceful use of nuclear technology. The treaty also requires nations without nuclear weapons to remain that way, while nations with weapons move towards eventual disarmament.
The Iranian government is hosting an international meeting on the NPT in Tehran this weekend, around the theme that all countries have the right to nuclear technology, but that none should have nuclear weapons.
The gathering is seen as an attempt to demonstrate support from developing countries following Obama’s nuclear summit, and Tehran is expected to continue its lobbying against sanctions.
Mohammad Akhoundzadeh, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and chairman of the event, said participants from 70 countries would attend, among them 14 foreign ministers and 10 deputy foreign ministers.
He did not elaborate, but Iranian media have reported that Russia and China are expected to participate at some level.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the U.S. was “skeptical that anything positive or concrete will come out of” the nuclear meeting in Tehran.
“Any country that wants to go to Iran and convince Iran to change its course, to meet its obligation, to come forward and answer the questions that the international community has about its nuclear ambitions and its nuclear activity, that is the right of any country to try to convince Iran to change course,” he said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow