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Don't bet on U.N. sanctions over the Iran IAEA report

The International Atomic Energy Agency's report on Iran's program constitutes the U.N. nuclear watchdog's strongest case ever that Iran is likely developing a nuclear weapon. But will it be enough to persuade Iran's most stalwart defenders, China and Russia, that its time to ratchet up pressure on Iran with a new round of biting U.N. sanctions?

Hardly.

In recent weeks, China and Russia mounted a pressure campaign of their own, sending top diplomats to meet with the IAEA's general director, Yukiya Amano, to convince him not to release his findings, which they view as too circumstantial and speculative.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement casting doubts about the wisdom of the IAEA's decision to release raw findings before the public, saying they would doom prospects for a resumption of talks between Iran and a group of six major powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany -- over the fate of Iran's nuclear program.

"We have serious doubts about the justification for steps to reveal contents of the report to a broad public, primarily because it is precisely now that certain chances for the renewal of dialogue between the sextet of international mediators and Tehran have begun to appear," according to the statement, which was reported by Reuters.

Amano's report dispenses with the IAEA's traditional caution in assessing evidence suggesting Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. "There are indications," he said plainly, "that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing."

"The agency has serious concerns regarding the possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program," he added. "The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device."

Iran, which has long denied it is developing nuclear weapons, dismissed the report as a politically motivated attack, and derided the IAEA chief as a U.S. lackey. In a statement in the official Islamic Republic News Agency, the Iranian government derided the report as "a series of false information added to the Amano report under U.S. pressure."

Senior Western diplomats say they see no signs that Iran is any more willing to engage in meaningful discussions over its nuclear intentions than it has been during more than seven years of on-and-off-again talks with the Iranians.

"Frankly, we have tried everything. They have never shown any openness ... to a substantial negotiation," France's U.N. envoy, Gerard Araud, acknowledged in a public discussion in September that I moderated at the French Consulate in New York.

Araud said that four rounds of U.N. sanctions are moving closer to harming the "crucial, vital interests" of Iran's trading partners, mostly notably Russia and China, the latter of which is becoming increasingly dependent on Iranian oil to meet the energy needs of a rapidly growing economy. "Is it possible to still tighten sanctions? Is it possible to go further, to move further?" he asked. "I doubt it. I really doubt it. Maybe in six months."

Another Western diplomat told Turtle Bay that the latest IAEA report may strengthen the West's hands in securing support for some modest measures, like expanding the number of individuals targeted by a U.N. travel ban and asset freeze, something that has been impossible to achieve since the Security Council last imposed sanctions on Iran in 2010.

But the diplomat said that more biting sanctions, like a ban on Iranian oil or gas trade, would likely trigger a Chinese or Russian veto. It's also unclear whether the United States, Britain, and France, would be keen on running the risk of disrupting an important source of the global oil supply during a period of economic crisis.

In any event, the official said, the Security Council is unlikely to even discuss the Iranian nuclear issue until next month, after the IAEA membership board meets to consider it.

But there is another reason why the Russians may be unwilling to play ball. The latest IAEA report, according to a Bloomberg news item, includes evidence put forward by an unnamed Russian scientist who helped the Iranians try to develop a strategy for boosting the yield on the force of an atomic bomb.

 

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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