Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, turned the diplomatic tables on Iran yesterday when she announced agreement among the world's major powers on fresh sanctions against Tehran.
Her statement came only a day after Iran agreed to export most of its stockpile of low- enriched uranium to neighbouring Turkey, a move seen in Washington as a bid to derail agreement on new sanctions. Suggesting Tehran had succeeded in doing just that, China initially gave a warm welcome to the deal to send 1,200kg of low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for nuclear fuel to power a civilian reactor. But Mrs Clinton told the Senate foreign relations committee the US had agreed a draft UN resolution imposing penalties on Iran with the other four permanent members of the Security Council, as well as Germany.
“I am pleased to announce to this committee we have reached agreement on a strong draft with the co-operation of both Russia and China.” She added the US would proceed to circulate this draft to all 15 members of the Security Council.
Even before Monday's announcement of the uranium exchange deal, Washington had secured Russian backing in principle for “targeted” sanctions and Chinese agreement to discuss specific measures.
US officials argue that the agreement brokered by Brazil and Turkey is full of holes and fails to address the central problem – Iran's continued enrichment of uranium, which could produce nuclear weapons and breaches five UN resolutions. The Obama administration, however, backed a similar arrangement with Iran last year as a confidence-building measure, and never took it off the table. Once the US introduces the draft resolution, the Security Council's 10 temporary members will be able to consider the proposals. This group includes Turkey and Brazil, who said their pact with Iran removed the need for sanctions.
The deal would require endorsement by the US, Russia and France and a subsequent accord on how it would be carried out. Mrs Clinton pointed out this would take months of further negotiation, raising the possibility that Iran will simply play for time while its nuclear programme progresses – a scenario Mrs Clinton described as “not acceptable”.
The US has been working to an informal deadline of agreeing a draft resolution among the five permanent members this month and winning the approval of the full Security Council in June. That would open the way for other measures against Iran, including unilateral steps by the US Treasury and tougher sanctions by the European Union.
Yesterday, however, Mrs Clinton did not spell out the measures included in the draft resolution, and in recent weeks, some US officials complained that China was watering down measures that would hit Iran's financial and energy sectors.