The Times: What now? Does China’s decision to block more sanctions against Iran mean the end of pressure on Tehran over its nuclear programme? No — it simplifies the task of organising that pressure. The Times
Bronwen Maddox: World Briefing
What now? Does China’s decision to block more sanctions against Iran mean the end of pressure on Tehran over its nuclear programme? No — it simplifies the task of organising that pressure. The US and the European Union may now move much more quickly. The most important declaration yesterday came from Angela Merkel who, standing next to Binyamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, said that she would be working on new sanctions in the next few weeks if Iran did not halt its controversial work.
The German Chancellor’s stand is essential for any new sanctions drive to have effect, as Germany is by far the European Union’s largest exporter to Iran. The most likely course now is that the US and EU pursue sanctions on their own, giving up hope of getting a new set backed by the Security Council, because of China’s opposition. Such a drive could be uncomfortable for Iran. True, the US has no direct trade with Iran itself, but its longstanding sanctions have had considerable effect by targeting foreign companies, including ones in Europe, that do.
There are two real decisions. The first is how much of its trade Germany is prepared to lose. The second is whether to target petrol and heating oil, the products that Iran is unable to refine for itself. That would hit ordinary Iranians; something that the EU and US have so far avoided doing. There is a debate even within the State Department about whether this would prompt Iranians to rise against the regime, or to turn against the US. One analyst, formerly of the department, described it as a split between those who thought the US actively secured the fall of the Soviet Union (and so should try to engineer the same in Iran), and those who thought that it collapsed from within (and so Iran should be left to do the same).
Tehran yesterday put out the now-routine, superficially reasonable statement, saying that it might be prepared for talks. But there seems little chance the regime wants to risk giving Iranians any impression that it is surrendering to Western pressure, with the opposition still so widespread and probing for any sign of weakness.
A breathing space may possibly come from technical difficulties that Iran appears to be having in its uranium enrichment efforts; the most controversial work, which can be used either to make fuel for reactors (as Iran claims) or weapons.
A fierce debate among Iran watchers has surrounded recent reports that in the past year its centrifuges have been working at much less than full capacity because of technical problems. According to Western officials, inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN watchdog, had noticed no deliberate go-slow on their visit to the Natanz plant last week. But in November, the agency found that the yield had dropped by up to a fifth.
If true, that would buy only a bit of time as Iran amasses fissile material. The regime’s leaders may be convinced that, with China as a friend, they can ignore all other pressure. The hope is that millions of Iranians want links with the US and Europe as well.