Setback for Obama’s hopes of swift Iran sanctions

Setback for Obama’s hopes of swift Iran sanctions

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By Harvey Morris at the United Nations

Published: April 5 2010 21:08 | Last updated: April 5 2010 21:08

The United Nations Security Council on Monday failed to include Iran’s nuclear programme on its agenda for April, underlining the likely slow road to sanctions that Barack Obama, US president, had hoped to have in place “within weeks”.

Japan’s Yukio Takasu, this month’s president of the 15-member council, said no meeting had been scheduled because it was not yet clear “when this might be taken up. It may not be taken up”.

Mr Obama, buoyed by what Washington officials perceived as a shift in China’s attitude towards imposing fresh sanctions on Iran, said a week ago that he wanted to see a fourth round of UN measures in place within weeks.

China had insisted further time should be given for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear stand-off. But western diplomats said Beijing was now ready to engage on the sanctions issue by attending talks in New York among ambassadors of the so-called P5 plus one – the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany.

Chinese officials have been circumspect and the talks, which could be a prelude to Beijing accepting increased pressure on Iran, have yet to be scheduled.

Mr Takasu said on Monday that, even if the P5 plus one eventually agreed a package of proposed sanctions, it would be “highly desirable” for the 10 non-permanent members of the council, including Japan, to also be consulted. “It’s the intention of the concerned countries to have a resolution in the Security Council,” said Mr Takasu, whose country has supported previous sanctions measures. “How soon and how we will be consulted, we will have to wait and see.”

Diplomats conceded that, assuming China agreed in principle to sanctions, it could take weeks to negotiate the text of a resolution that it, Russia and several non-permanent members of the council might find acceptable.

The council’s senior ambassadors will be on a three-country tour of Africa for the whole third week of the month and Mr Takasu said on Monday there had been no discussions of changing that plan.

There are a number of reasons the US and its western partners would like to squeeze through a binding resolution before the end of the month. Next month’s presidency will be held by Lebanon, a non-permanent member that would almost certainly abstain in a sanctions vote, given the sensitivities of a domestic political landscape that includes the Iranian-backed Hizbollah.

Much of May will also be taken up by a review conference in New York of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran is a signatory and might use the opportunity to win support from developing countries for its argument that it is being victimised by western states over what it claims is a civilian nuclear programme.

President Obama is meanwhile under pressure from members of the US Congress to move ahead with unilateral sanctions against Iran, potentially much tougher than anything the Security Council is likely to adopt.

Both Houses of Congress have passed legislation that would potentially punish foreign companies that continued to do business in the Iranian oil sector by denying them federal contracts. The White House would like to see UN sanctions in place before the Senate and House of Representatives moved to reconcile the wording of their two separate bills.

Some members, supported by influential lobbies such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are pressing for a conference to resolve the bills to take place without further delay. Howard Berman, the Democratic chairman of the House foreign affairs committee has said he hopes to see the bills voted on by May.

Senior congress members from both parties have been unsympathetic to the White House arguments that Security Council members states, including China, should be exempted from the provisions of US unilateral measures.

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