Iran’s Nuclear Deadline Looms, Amid Little Sign of Urgency From the Int’l Community

By Patrick Goodenough | December 15, 2009 | 4:37 AM EST

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his office in Tehran on Monday, Dec. 14, 2009. (AP Photo)

(Editor’s note: The House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon passed the Iranian Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, by a vote of 412-12. See end of story for voting details.)

– The Obama administration’s year-end deadline for Iran to respond to international demands on the nuclear issue or face “tough” sanctions is looming, but any sense of urgency was dispelled Monday by reports that China is unable to fit in a meeting in the coming days to discuss the matter.

China is one of the six major countries – the others are the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany – involved in efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff. It also is the second-biggest buyer of Iranian oil, and has long been resistant to sanctions.
News that China could not make Friday’s planned meeting of the six-power group came on the same day that The Times of London, citing intelligence documents, said Iran reportedly has been working on testing “a neutron initiator, the component of a nuclear bomb that triggers an explosion.”
The U.S. and allies suspect Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability; Iran says its nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes only, and has turned down a series of international proposals aimed at resolving the crisis.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that the administration’s effort to engage Iran this year had “produced very little in terms of any kind of a positive response from the Iranians,” telling reporters on Monday that “additional pressure is going to be called for.”
She declined to comment about the allegations raised by The Times but said concerns about Iran’s intentions already had been heightened by the disclosure of a clandestine uranium enrichment facility at Qom, and the recent announcement of plans to build at least 10 more plants.
Officials from the U.S. and the other five countries were supposed to meet either in Brussels or on the sidelines of the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, but the State Department said a meeting could now not take place.
“It’s been decided that because of a scheduling difficulty, it won’t be possible this year,” spokesman Ian Kelly told a briefing, but declined to identify which of Washington’s partners could not make the meeting.
Officials told wire services in Washington and Vienna that China was the one asking for a cancellation.
Kelly said officials from the six countries would probably hold a teleconference call on the issue “before the end of the year.”
Israel, which regards a nuclear-armed Iran as a potentially existential threat and has not ruled out a military response, reiterated its calls Monday for the international community to take the issue seriously. “There is a need for tough sanctions,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said during a visit to Austria. “We recommend to all players not to remove any options from the table.”
‘Tehran needs proof we are serious’
In Washington, advocacy groups have been stepping up lobbying ahead of a House of Representatives vote this week on a bill targeting companies that supply Iran with gasoline or help Iran to improve its domestic refinery sector.
The Iranian Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, sponsored by Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), has 343 co-sponsors and enjoys wide bipartisan support.
Although the world’s fourth biggest oil exporter, because of poor infrastructure Iran relies on imports for about 40 percent of its domestic gasoline consumption, according to Congressional Research Service reports on Iran’s economy.
Supporters of sanctions identify this as an important way of putting pressure on Tehran in a critical area, in a bid to resolve the nuclear dispute without the need for force.
Opponents argue that it will damage international unity, harm ordinary Iranians, and be used by Tehran to rally support from citizens including those at odds with the regime over this year’s disputed presidential election.
Leading American evangelical and other Christian figures have put their name to an appeal to lawmakers to pass the bill, saying that with Obama’s year-end deadline just days away, “Tehran needs proof we are serious.”
“Iran’s nuclear weapons program will destabilize the Middle East, lead to an arms race in a volatile part of the world, and threaten the United States and its allies in Europe,” warned the ad-hoc Christian Leaders for a Nuclear-Free Iran coalition. Its members include Concerned Women for America president Wendy Wright, Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president William Donohue, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Christian Broadcasting Network president Pat Robertson.
Counter arguments came from the National Iranian American Council and a group of peace organizations including Council for a Livable World and the Mennonite Central Committee.
In a letter to congressional leaders Monday, they warned that passage of the legislation “will be counterproductive and damage the overall unity among our international partners who share our ultimate goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
A bill in the Senate also provides for a range of unilateral sanctions, including penalties on companies that support Iran’s import of refined petroleum products or help its domestic refining capacity. The bipartisan Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act also authorizes state and local governments to divest from companies doing critical business with Iran and bans U.S government contracts to firms that provide Tehran with communications monitoring or jamming technology.
Both the House and Senate bills seek to amend existing legislation, the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 (it was formerly known as the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, but Libya was removed in 2004).
What will Obama do?
Last year, then Senator Obama voiced support for targeting Iran’s gasoline imports, saying that preventing the Iranians from getting the gas they need “starts changing their cost-benefit analysis. That starts putting the squeeze on them.”
The administration’s stance on gas sanctions remains unclear, however.

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg testifying before the Senate Banking Committee on October 6, 2009 on administration policy regarding Iran. (Photo: State Department)

Testifying before the Senate Banking Committee in early October, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg sounded keener on “smart” sanctions, such as those targeting the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), than on sanctions targeting gas imports.
On the latter, he said, “we still have not reached a firm judgment on whether that would be the best way to go, in part because he would need a better understanding of what the efficacy would be, in part because it would depend on the degree to which others participated in this. Obviously this is a hard thing to do unilaterally.”
Asked what the answer would be if other countries did agree to participate, Steinberg replied, “we have not yet reached a firm conclusion about whether the net benefits and the net costs would have the efficacy – the challenge is always to try to translate the economic impact into what the political impact would be.”
Steinberg also referred to the importance of the president having “the appropriate flexibility” in its foreign policy.
 In an op-ed published in The Jerusalem Post Monday, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a longtime author of Iran sanctions measures, said that for the legislation currently before the House to succeed, “the Iranians must believe the president will enforce it.”
While the bill “could emerge as the key tool to peacefully end our standoff with Iran, it will prove meaningless if the president keeps gasoline sanctions locked in his diplomatic toolbox,” he said.
Kirk noted that the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act “already makes it illegal to invest more than $20 million in Iran's oil and gas sectors,” but said that no U.S. president has enforced a provision which requires him to declare an entity to be in violation before the sanctions take effect.

--  The House of Representatives on Tuesday passed the Iranian Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, by a vote of 412-12.

The “no” votes came from Republicans John Duncan (Tenn.) , Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Ron Paul (Tex.) ; and from Democrats Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), John Conyers (Mich.), Maurice Hinchey (N.Y.), Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), Stephen Lynch (Mass.), Jim McDermott (Wash.), Gwen Moore (Wis.) and Pete Stark (Calif.)

Democrats Eddie Johnson (Tex.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Carolyn Kilpatrick (Mich.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) answered “present.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow