By Daniel Dombey in Washington
Published: October 26 2007 01:14 | Last updated: October 26 2007 01:14
For weeks, if not months, the US administration has found itself in an awkward position on Iran – caught between a domestic debate that has pushed Washington to impose new sanctions and delicate international negotiations that could be upset by such a course.
Political and public concern about Tehran has mounted in the US in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s visit to New York last month and a series of claims by the US military that Iran was supplying weapons to insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, last month voted for a non-binding Senate motion to classify the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation. John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, has railed against the administration for what he considers its excessively soft stance on not just Iran, but also Syria and North Korea.
Hence the pressure on the George W. Bush to take action.
That pressure also dovetailed with the frustration felt by US diplomats themselves in the face of Russian and Chinese objections to further UN action.
“We are six months past the date where we should have seen a third Security Council resolution,” said Nicholas Burns, US undersecretary of state, in a reference to deadlines set by two previous UN sanctions resolutions.
So it was no surprise that Ms Clinton hailed Thursday’s step, which the US hopes will have similar effects to a Security Council resolution by deterring other countries and companies from doing business with Iran. “The sanctions announced today strengthen America’s diplomatic hand,” she said.
Internationally, however, the response was more guarded. When word first emerged in August that the US was considering labelling the entire Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation, European diplomats, including British ones, were aghast. They considered such a step excessively provocative.
In the event, Thursday’s unilateral US sanctions took the less dramatic step of identifying the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guard’s international arm, as a supporter of terrorism, and the Guard as a whole as “of proliferation concern”, together with similar measures against the logistics division of the Ministry of Defence and three Iranian banks.
This was more to Europe’s liking. “We endorse the US administration’s efforts to apply further pressure on the Iranian regime,” said the office of Gordon Brown, UK prime minister.
But France and Germany, not to mention Russia, still have significant concerns about how the US move will affect prospects of agreement at the UN.
Top diplomats from the Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany are scheduled to meet in London next week in order to work on a text for a new round of sanctions on Iran, which could include steps against Bank Melli.
Western diplomats are genuinely unsure about whether Thursday’s announcement will make agreement more difficult, since Russia has already warned against unilateral sanctions, facilitate it by showing the seriousness of the US’s intent, or serve as a more effective source of pressure than anything the UN could agree.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, reacted to the move by stressing the importance of imposing sanctions on Iran on a multilateral rather than bilateral basis.