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The big powers strike back

For a day, Turkey and Brazil, two middling powers, lived large on the international stage, brokering a dramatic nuclear deal with Iran that was intended to stall the big powers' march towards sanctions against Tehran. This morning, the big powers slapped down the diplomatic upstarts, announcing an agreement on a fourth round of sanctions.

Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced this morning that the council's major powers, including China and Russia, had reached agreement on a "strong draft" of a resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. The sanctions resolution, which was the subject of contentious negotiations, was abruptly approved only after the Iranian fuel deal was announced.

The new draft (pdf) reflects a moderate reinforcement of existing sanctions on Iran, but stops short of calling for some of the toughest measures initially envisioned by the U.S. and its European allies: restrictions on Iran's lucrative oil trade, including a U.S.-backed proposal to ban new investment in Iran's energy sector. The draft explicitly rules out the right of states to use force or threaten to use force to enforce it.

"This announcement is as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken by Tehran over the last few days as any we could provide," said Clinton, who finalized the deal in a phone call Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. "We don't believe it was any accident that Iran agreed to this declaration as we were preparing to move forward in New York."

The sanctions pact underscored the importance that countries like China and Russia, which have previously sided with Tehran, place on maintaining the big-power monopoly on the Security Council. The council's five permanent members -- the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia -- plus Germany, presented their draft to the members of the 15-nation council, including Brazil and Turkey.

Brazil and Turkey voiced outrage over the decision to press ahead with a vote on a sanctions resolution. As the council began debating the new draft text, Brazil's U.N. ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti walked out of the council chamber to tell reporters that her government "will not engage in any draft resolution" on sanctions. She said that there is "still room for negotiations."

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the council's five permanent members -- who alone possess the right to possess nuclear weapons -- have lost the moral authority to dictate who should remain in the nuclear club. "Where is your credibility if you have nuclear weapons, but are telling other countries not to have them?," Erdogan said during a speech at European University in Madrid.

But the U.N.'s big powers shrugged off the criticism. In a show of support for the U.S. sanctions draft, Russia's and China's U.N. envoys told reporters that while they appreciated the Turkish and Brazilian diplomatic initiative, they were prepared to support the American draft. "We find the language of the resolution acceptable; we go along with it," said Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin. "Russia as usual is going to treat the views of the non-permanent members with all the respect that they deserve."

Following the council meeting, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., together with the envoys of Britain and France, downplayed the significance of the latest Iranian offer to ship low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for fuel rods with a higher-grade uranium that can be used to power its medical research reactors.

"The Tehran reactor proposal as tabled in October had nothing to do with Iran's sanctioned activities," Rice said. "In the meantime, Iran has continued to enrich uranium in violation of Security Council resolutions. So any confidence building value of the Tehran research reactor deal has been not only diminished by the time that has elapsed but substantially by Iran's insistence that it will continue to enrich."

Rice said the draft put before the council today would "build on existing U.N. sanctions on Iran and give them additional teeth." But she said the "door remains open" to negotiation with Iran if its lives up to its obligations.

U.S. officials said that they are confident that they can muster the nine votes required for adoption of the resolution in the 15-nation council. The Lebanese government, which includes a faction led by the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, has made it clear it will not support sanctions against Tehran. Turkey and Brazil likewise reaffirmed their commitment to avoid sanctions. Still, the prospect of three "no" votes would highlight the growing divisions in the international coalition against Iran.

The new draft reaffirms the Security Council's demand that Iran suspend its enrichment of uranium and fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. It also reaffirms existing prohibitions on Iran's right to develop ballistic missiles and sensitive nuclear-proliferation activities.

The draft would expand a partial U.N. arms embargo to ban the sale of battle tanks, warships, attack helicopters, missiles and other conventional weapons to Iran. But it stops short of U.S. and French calls for a comprehensive arms embargo.

It would expand an asset freeze and travel ban against individuals and entities linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. But the U.S. and other major powers have yet to agree on who would be targeted by the measures. The Security Council would establish a panel of experts to monitor compliance with the sanctions.

The resolution would also establish a new framework for carrying out inspections of cargo suspected of containing banned materials on the high seas or in foreign ports.  States will inspect vessels if there are "reasonable grounds" to believe they are transporting weapons or nuclear materials. But the resolution calls on states seeking to board a ship on the high seas to secure the consent of the flag state.

The draft also calls for tightening financial sanctions on Iran. It calls on financial institutions to block transactions by Iranian entities if there are "reasonable grounds" to believe they are evading sanctions or engaging in banned activities. States are obligated to require their nationals to "exercise vigilance" in their business dealing with Iranian firms, particularly if they are suspected of evading sanctions or engaging in banned activities. The resolution also bars states from allowing Iran to establish overseas bank branches if they are linked to proliferation activities.

The resolution urges Iran to reengage in nuclear talks with the U.S. and other key powers, and promised to lift sanctions once Tehran complies with the council's demands to halt its banned nuclear and missile activities.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

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