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WASHINGTON, Jun 2 2011 (IPS) - Securing greater cooperation from China and taking a more flexible stance on Iran’s uranium enrichment programme should be the focus of U.S. and allied efforts to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, according to a new report released here Thursday by a prominent think tank.
The report, issued by a blue-ribbon task force convened by the Atlantic Council, warned that approval by Congress of new sanctions against Iran – several of which are currently pending – could damage the international coalition that last year rallied behind a U.N. Security Council resolution that tightened and expanded existing measures against Tehran.
“Piling on yet more stringent and comprehensive penalties – seeking to embargo Iranian oil exports, for example – risks undermining the significant international cooperation the (President Barack) Obama administration has achieved without giving adequate time for the sanctions already imposed to work,” according to the 12-page report, “Iran Sanctions: Preferable to War But No Silver Bullet.”
Washington should instead concentrate on implementing the existing sanctions, persuading Beijing to use its growing economic leverage with Tehran to convince it to accept a diplomatic solution to the nuclear impasse, and clarifying that the U.S. is willing to accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium subject to more stringent international oversight, according to the task force.
It is co-chaired by the current head of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, and a Stuart Eizenstat, who served in senior trade and national security posts under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
“Condoning limited enrichment to a level of 5 percent U-235 could be coupled with demands that Iran agree to rigorous monitoring, including acceptance of the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty,” according to the report. “If Iran refuses, the international consensus against it will only be strengthened.”
Since taking office, the Obama administration has repeatedly charged that Iran’s nuclear programme is designed to build a nuclear weapon – a goal the president has deemed “unacceptable”.
Last week, administration officials pointed to the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that cited new information on what it called “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear programme as additional evidence that Tehran is lying when it insists that its nuclear programme is designed strictly for peaceful purposes.
At the same time, however, the New Yorker’s legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published a long article based mainly on interviews with unnamed U.S. and foreign intelligence officials that concluded there was no concrete evidence that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon.
The article, which immediately came under fierce attack by anonymous administration officials, warned that the U.S. could be in danger of “repeating a mistake similar to the one made with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq eight years ago – allowing anxieties about the policies of a tyrannical regime to distort our estimates of the state’s military capacities and intentions.”
Meanwhile, the recently retired head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad warned for the second time in a month that any strike by the Jewish state against Iran’s nuclear facilities could prove disastrous and, in any case, would at best only delay rather than eliminate Tehran’s nuclear programme.
The former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who earlier this month called such a strike “the stupidest thing I have ever heard”, renewed speculation that the government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seriously considering such a step despite Mossad’s recent conclusion that Tehran is unlikely to attain a nuclear weapons capability until 2015 at the earliest. The Obama administration has reportedly told the Israelis that it opposes a military attack.
The new report also comes amid a major new push by members of Congress closely allied to the so-called “Israel Lobby” to pass legislation that would both close loopholes in Washington’s existing sanctions regime and impose new sanctions against Tehran and companies doing business with it in hopes that other countries would follow suit.
One bill, which is considered likely to be approved relatively quickly this summer, would expand the scope of current sanctions against third-country companies that export refined petroleum to Iran and level new sanctions on companies investing in Iran’s oil-and-gas industries.
Last week, the administration announced sanctions against seven companies from Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Venezuela, Monaco, and Singapore for supplying Iran with refined petroleum products.
The announcement drew praise from Netanyahu who, speaking before the annual conference of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), appealed to the hundreds of U.S. lawmakers in attendance to “continue to send the message that America will never permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons.”
The new report, however, argues that sanctions, while exacting a clear cost on Iran’s economy, including an estimated 50-60 billion dollars in lost foreign investment, are unlikely to bring about the kinds of concessions Washington wants from Tehran.
This is primarily because of China’s refusal to follow the U.S. and its allies in imposing measures beyond those approved by the Security Council and because of the persistence of high oil prices which have helped cushion the sanctions’ impact on Iran’s economy.
While, in response to U.S. pressure, Beijing has effectively frozen its investment in Iran’s energy sector and slightly reduced its imports of Iranian oil, “it is not about to abandon Iran,” according to the report, which noted that Turkey and India are also resisting U.S. pressure to cut economic ties with the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 countries – the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany – appear to have stalled, in part due to the intensified power struggle between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Republic’s Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Nonetheless, the report called on Washington to “work with the other members of the P5+1 to reach a common stance on uranium enrichment that would allow Iran to save face while alleviating proliferation concerns.”
“Instead of proposing new measures to cripple the overall Iranian economy, Washington should concentrate on implementing current sanctions, focus on Iran’s human rights abuses, and press the Iranian government to embrace its people’s demands for greater freedom and democracy,” according to the report.
At the same time, the report noted that the sanctions are creating hardship for the Iranian middle class and may be indirectly benefiting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose business interests and share of the national economy have expanded significantly in recent years.
(Barbara Slavin, the report’s main author, is a regular contributor to IPS).
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