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Gaza Aid Attack Complicates New Sanctions on Iran

Barbara Slavin

WASHINGTON, Jun 1 2010 (IPS) - Israel’s lethal confrontation with pro-Palestinian activists in the Mediterranean is complicating U.S. strategy toward Iran and undermining the likelihood of a solid sanctions victory at the United Nations.

U.S. officials sought Tuesday to separate the two issues and said they are still actively pursuing a fourth round of punitive measures against Iran in the U.N. Security Council.

“We intend to continue to move ahead a resolution in New York focused squarely on the reality … that Iran has thus far been unwilling to engage with the international community on the concerns that the IAEA underscored again yesterday,” Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

He was referring to the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It cited Iran for continuing to amass a stockpile of potential bomb fuel and failing to clarify aspects of its nuclear programme that can have military applications.

However, the incident in the Mediterranean, in which Israeli commandos killed at least nine activists, has overshadowed the Iran question and made it less likely that the U.S. will gain broad support for more sanctions.

The U.S. laboured for months to gain Russian and Chinese backing for a resolution. It would restrict Iranian arms imports, authorise inspection of Iranian cargo and make it harder for Iranian banks to open new branches abroad.

Russia and China are among the five permanent members of the Security Council that have veto power. Passage of a resolution requires no veto, plus support from at least four other members of the 15-nation body.

Turkey is unlikely to be among them. Brazil and Lebanon are also potential ‘no’ votes. It is possible that other members such as Mexico will abstain. Three previous sanctions resolutions against Iran had much broader backing and no negative votes.

Turkey, which has been trying to assume a major diplomatic role in the Middle East, is the chief opponent to the Iran resolution. It is also the home port for the ships that tried to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. Most of the fatalities are Turkish nationals.

The flotilla fiasco – which Israel contends came in self-defence when their forces were set upon with pipes and clubs – has strained already troubled Turkish-Israeli ties to the breaking point, with Turkish officials accusing Israel of “state terrorism”.

The Turkish media on Tuesday excoriated Israel. A columnist in the newspaper Hurriyet said that Israel’s “banditry” shows that “Israel never treats the Palestinian people fairly and humanely. We do not believe that Turkish-Israel relations … can improve as long as the current governments in both countries remain in charge.”

Another newspaper, Radikal, called Israel a “rogue” state.

Turkish media also suggested that Israel acted out of anger at Turkey’s efforts to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. The leaders of Turkey and Brazil mediated a deal in May under which Iran promised to send to Turkey 1,200 kilogrammes of low-enriched uranium. In return, Iran would receive fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical isotopes.

The deal is similar to one advanced by the Obama administration last fall. But the U.S. reaction has been one of annoyance, not gratitude.

Burns said Tuesday that the U.S. was consulting with Russia and France and planned “at some point” to send a letter about the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian plan to the head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano. Burns suggested that the U.S. felt no urgency to do so.

“I can’t give you an exact date” when the U.S. will respond, he said.

Burns said that the Iranian offer did not address “the core concern” – Iran’s unwillingness to suspend uranium enrichment, which the U.N. has repeatedly demanded.

Burns added that the plan advanced last year with U.S. backing – which would have sent Iranian low enriched uranium to Russia and France – was a “confidence-building measure” not a solution to the nuclear crisis.

This confidence-building measure “has diminished over time for the simple fact that Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium has increased considerably,” he said. Last October, 1,200 kilogrammes represented three-quarters of Iran’s stockpile, he said; now it’s about half.

Still, the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian deal has attracted support not only internationally but among U.S. nonproliferation and Iran experts.

Nine analysts including a man who once served in Burns’ position – Thomas Pickering – issued a statement Tuesday urging the so-called P5+1 – the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany, which have coordinated policy on Iran – to “take advantage of this opportunity as the first step in a broader dialogue that could include further confidence building measures”.

Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council and one of the signatories of the statement, warned that “there may not be many more opportunities” for the U.S. and Iran to engage.

“Obviously, nothing is perfect but the task here is to try to provide opportunities to sit down, talk and establish a more robust procedure for diplomacy,” he said.

Talks, Parsi said, could also deal with regional issues such as Iraq and Afghanistan and with Iran’s poor record on human rights.

With Israel’s attack on the aid convoy, however, Iran is now in the unusual position of being able to lecture Tel Aviv about rights abuses.

“It’s a perfect storm,” Parsi said.

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