The UN Security Council approved a resolution yesterday (Wednesday, June 9th) imposing a fourth round of sanctions on Iran in response to its continued nuclear enrichment program, which is in violation of prior Security Council resolutions. The vote was 12 in favor, 2 against (Brazil and Turkey) and 1 abstention (Lebanon). The new resolution imposes new financial restrictions on Iran, expands an existing arms embargo, and authorizes a greater capacity to stop and search Iranian cargo ships. Targeted sanctions on specific individuals and entities were expanded. The resolution also includes measures directed against Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
While the United States, Great Britain, and France were the resolution's strongest sponsors, China and Russia also expressed their verbal support along with their votes -- although the Russian ambassador added a major caveat in his response to a reporter's question about Russia's prospective sale of a sophisticated anti-aircraft system to Iran.
Lebanon's decision to abstain was a pleasant surprise, considering the influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah in the Lebanese government. Brazil and Turkey, as expected, opposed the new resolution on the grounds that it could undermine a proposed nuclear fuel swap between Iran and the two countries. They seemed to forget that the European Union has been trying to negotiate with Iran since 2005 and the Obama administration waited 18 months while trying to engage Iran before seeking passage of this resolution. Only when new sanctions became a real possibility did Iran come around to the fuel swap concept that it had first agreed upon and then promptly reneged on last fall.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters after the vote that the "resolution is strong, it’s tough and it’s comprehensive. And it is something that Iran fought very hard to prevent passage today. The effort, the time, the money, and the poise that they employed to try to prevent this resolution’s passage only underscores their understanding, that this is a major blow."
Despite the ineffectiveness of the three prior resolutions, Ambassador Rice expressed confidence that the cumulative effect on Iran of all the resolutions is "harmful and hurtful."
Iran remains unbowed. Its representative told the Security Council after the vote that it had no intention of changing its present course. He accused the United States and Great Britain in particular of continuing a long pattern of interference in Iran's affairs and displaying a double standard vis-a-vis Israel. Ambassador Rice told reporters that these comments were "reprehensible, offensive, and inaccurate."
On paper at least, the new resolution does appear to represent a significant move forward from the prior three. More specifically, the resolution prohibits Iran from investing in sensitive nuclear activities abroad, like uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, as well as activities involving ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The ban also applies to investment in uranium mining.
States are prohibited from selling or in any way transferring to Iran various categories of heavy weapons (battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and certain missiles or missile systems). States are similarly prohibited from providing technical or financial assistance for such systems, or spare parts.
The resolution also sets up a new cargo inspection framework. States are expected to inspect any vessel on their territory suspected of carrying prohibited cargo, including banned conventional arms or sensitive nuclear or missile items. States are also expected to cooperate in such inspections on the high seas.
States are called upon to prevent any financial service and to freeze any asset that could contribute to Iran's proliferation.
Most significantly, the resolution targets the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for its role in proliferation and requires states to mandate that businesses exercise vigilance over all transactions involving the IRGC. Fifteen IRGC-related companies linked to proliferation will have their assets frozen. The IRGC is the major power center in Iran's economic and military spheres as well as one of the government's primary instruments for suppressing political dissent. Impairing the IRGC's freedom of operations will be a significant accomplishment, if successful.
UN Security Council sanctions resolutions against pre-liberation Iraq, North Korea, and Iran have had a bad track record in actual practice. The resolutions have been easy for the sanctioned countries to evade through the use of multiple front entities, money laundering and trading partners unwilling to give up short term advantage for longer term peace and security.
Also, enforcement of the cargo inspection at sea will be a challenge if Iran, as expected, refuses to cooperate. When the French UN ambassador, for example, was asked what measures France would be willing to take in such a scenario, he refused to answer what he called a "hypothetical question."
Most ominously, the Russian UN ambassador told reporters that Russia did not consider the sale of its sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft system to Iran to be within the resolution's scope. The S-300 missile defense system would no doubt be used by Iran to shield its nuclear sites against a potential air strike, should military force become necessary to stop Iran from producing nuclear bombs. The Russian ambassador is technically correct because the resolution's ban on the transfer to Iran of certain missile systems is written in such a way that it creates a big loophole for Russia to walk through in delivering to Iran its ground-to-air missiles, including its S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and anti-missile interceptors.
The Obama administration will spin the latest sanctions resolution against Iran as a major diplomatic triumph and a significant obstacle in the way of Iran's progress towards achieving nuclear arms capability. But until the S-300 loophole is closed, until the U.S. and its allies figure out a way to effectively stop evasions of the sanctions, and until enough countries show that they are willing to enforce the cargo inspections, the Obama administration might want to wait before it celebrates.