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Effectiveness of Proposed UN Sanctions on Iran Debatable

The U.S. has put before the U.N. Security Council a new set of sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. But they had to be diluted to secure the support of China and Russia, both of which have trade ties to Iran and have been reluctant to back sanctions.

Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of crippling U.N. sanctions if Iran did not abandon its nuclear ambitions. But by the time she announced earlier this month that the five permanent Security Council members had agreed on a draft sanctions resolution the adjective crippling had disappeared from U.S. diplomatic vocabulary.

"I am pleased to announce to this committee we have reached agreement on a strong draft with the cooperation of both Russia and China," she said.

Analysts point out that the draft resolution, which would be the fourth set of U.N. sanctions on Iran on the nuclear issue, only modestly expands current sanctions. The proposal targets Iranian banks and calls for inspection of vessels that might be carrying cargo for Iran's nuclear or missile program. But such inspections would require Iranian assent, and there is no enforcement mechanism. Most important of all, there are no restrictions on Iran's petroleum trade.

An Iran affairs analyst for the private intelligence firm STRATFOR, Reva Bhalla, calls the resolution relatively meaningless because it had to be so weakened in order to get Chinese and Russian support.

"Really, that is a song-and-dance [a show] for the diplomatic world. That is for the United States to show that it has a coalition of nations, most notably Russia and China, that is willing to take a stand against Iran. That is why the UNSC draft that has been circulating around is extremely watered down," said Bhalla. "It does not even touch the energy issue. It is really just an extension of the current sanctions against Iran."

But former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns tells VOA that while the proposed sanctions may not have a great deal of practical effect, they have enormous symbolic value.

"It is very important that the Security Council would unite around the idea that Iran has not told the truth, has not abided by the first three set of sanctions resolutions that were passed between 2006 and 2008," said Burns. "I do think the symbolism, the symbolic act, of branding Iran essentially as an outlaw country is very powerful and very important. And while the sanctions may not be crippling, they may not be extraordinarily tough, they will still make a difference on the margins."

Secretary Clinton's announcement followed Iran's statement it would send a portion of its enriched uranium to Turkey in return for nuclear-reactor fuel. A very similar deal was proposed last year, but Iran backed out. Iran is believed to have more nuclear material now. Moreover, the deal, reached with Brazil and Turkey, is full of loopholes, analysts say, including one that would allow Iran to scuttle the swap and demand its uranium back if it is unsatisfied.

Echoing comments by U.S. officials, Nicholas Burns, who now teaches at Harvard University, says the fuel swap is Tehran's desperate bid to undercut any international consensus for new sanctions.

"I do think the Turkey-Brazil deal was very unfortunate," added Burns. "However well-intentioned Turkey and Brazil may have been, the result of their announcement with President Ahmadinejad was to lessen the pressure on the Iranian regime and to give some members of the Security Council an excuse not to vote for sanctions."

There is a second track of unilateral sanctions pending in the U.S. Congress. A bill, called the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, would extend current U.S. sanctions to directly target Iranian imports of gasoline. Although Iran is a major oil producer, it has virtually no refining capacity and has to export oil to be produced into gasoline.

Such a move would be crippling. The bill has passed both houses of Congress and is currently languishing in conference committee for the two chambers to iron out any differences in the measure. But STRATFOR'S Reva Bhalla says the Obama administration is in no hurry to push for such a drastic move.

"What I have been hearing is that the administration really is not in any rush to move on that," said Bhalla. "The whole idea is, how do you bring Iran to the negotiating table without scaring it away? And so that is why right now the administration is really pushing this public relations move with the UNSC sanctions draft while holding off on the gasoline sanctions in Congress."

There is also the risk that any action by Congress could upset the delicate consensus in the U.N. Security Council. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned the U.S. and the European Union not to impose any unilateral sanctions on Iran.