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Inside the U.N.’s Iran sanctions debate

The United States’ confidential U.N. sanctions text calls for a comprehensive arms embargo on Iran, allows foreign states to seize Iranian ships suspected of carrying materials linked to its nuclear program, and curtails Tehran’s ability to raise new investment in the country’s energy sector, according to U.N.-based diplomats. Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to ...

The United States’ confidential U.N. sanctions text calls for a comprehensive arms embargo on Iran, allows foreign states to seize Iranian ships suspected of carrying materials linked to its nuclear program, and curtails Tehran’s ability to raise new investment in the country’s energy sector, according to U.N.-based diplomats.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, outlined the U.S. proposal today in a meeting at the U.S. mission with the U.N.’s big powers — China, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany. The United States hopes to adopt a sanctions resolution before the end of April, but some council officials said it was more likely it would pass in June.

The text under negotiation has been written by the United States, with input from Washington’s European partners. It has been crafted to target senior officers in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and a network of Iranian companies and financial institutions it controls. The U.S. believes these entities have been used to underwrite Tehran’s military proxies throughout the Middle East and fund Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear enrichment programs.

China objected strenuously to the U.S. proposal for sanctions on energy investments during a big-power meeting last week in New York on the text, and insisted that Beijing would not accept any provisions that challenged its commercial interests in Iran, according to council diplomats. But Beijing has finally begun to engage in direct negotiations, offering some suggestions during the past 24 hours on how the U.S. should modify its text.

The negotiations continued as Iran announced that it had made a critical breakthrough in its efforts to produce a self-sufficient nuclear fuel program. The country’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that Iran had enriched uranium to 20 percent purity, well above the previous 3.5 percent level achieved by Iran’s nuclear scientists. Iran requires uranium enriched to that level to fuel its medical research reactors. The purity of Iran’s enriched uranium is still well below the 90 percent level required to produce a nuclear bomb, but it moves it far closer to being able to produce a nuclear weapon.

The developments follow a high-level meeting in Washington Monday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao. After the meeting, U.S. officials said that Obama received a commitment from Hu to continue negotiations on a new sanctions resolution. But the Chinese have yet to agree to endorse any specific measures against Tehran.

Today’s meeting at the U.S. mission to the United Nations represents the first time the six powers — known as the P-5+1 — have begun substantive negotiations on the U.S. text. During a three-hour meeting at the British mission last week, China, Russia, and others simply restated their positions on U.N. sanctions. Beijing and Moscow both say they remain committed to resolving the nuclear dispute with Iran through negotiations. They both have pressed Iran to accept an offer to swap its enriched uranium for nuclear fuel from Russia or France for use in a medical research reactor.

But Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin voiced frustration. "I don’t think any of us wants to impose sanctions; what we want is to have a diplomatic solution," Churkin said. But "if Iran wants to negotiate it should start negotiating."

Security Council diplomats say that the passage of the last Iran sanctions resolution, 1803, took more than six weeks of intense bargaining in New York to conclude, and that was after their capitals had already agreed to the general parameters to the talks. They believe the current negotiations may take even longer, given that the key powers are essentially starting from scratch. The timing has also been complicated by the presence of Lebanon in the Security Council presidency next month. Lebanon’s cabinet includes a key bloc from the Shiite movement Hezbollah, which receives financial and military backing from Iran.

Here’s a link to the key nuclear negotiators in New York. The U.S. proposal targets four key sectors of the Iranian economy.

ARMS: The U.N. Security Council has previously imposed a partial arms embargo on Iran that is crafted to prevent Iran from trading in ballistic missile or nuclear technology, and which bans the exports of most weapons. The United States and its European partners want to close the gap with a total ban on imports and exports. But Russia, which supplies Iran with military materials, objects to the comprehensive arms embargo. Moscow and Beijing have insisted that any new sanctions should narrowly target Iran’s capacity to developed ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons.

ENERGY: The U.S. wants to bar new foreign investment in the Iranian energy sector, according to diplomats familiar with the U.S. plan. But it would not bar the export or import of oil and other petroleum-based products. China’s U.N. ambassador Li Baodong objected to the provision last week during a closed-door meeting of the key U.N. powers negotiating U.N. sanctions. Russia supports China. "If we speak about energy sanctions, I’ll give you my opinion. I think that we are unlikely to achieve a consolidated position in the world community on this issue," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a recent interview with ABC television, according to Reuters.

SHIPPING: The U.S. text would permit the seizure of Iranian vessels on the high seas suspected of ferrying cargo linked to Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear program. It would also seek to make it harder for Iran to by insurance on Iranian vessels. The Obama administration sees last year’s resolution on North Korea as a model for tightening sanctions on banned Iranian trade. In June, the Security Council voted to authorize states for the first time to board North Korean vessels at sea if they were suspected of carrying banned cargo. The resolution has led to increased seizure of North Korean vessels. But the Chinese have argued that North Korea, a declared nuclear power, deserves a tougher approach than Iran, whose nuclear ambitions remain ambiguous and unproven. The United States and its European allies have countered that sanctions are supposed to be preventive instead of punitive, and that it makes sense to do whatever it can to dissuade Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons.

FINANCIAL: Rice will be looking to sanction Iran’s central bank and press for additional targeted travel and financial restrictions against officials and businesses linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including a group of companies recently sanctioned by the Treasury Department. A natural target is Revolutionary Guard General Rostam Qasemi. who is also the commander of Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, the engineering arm that Treasury says helps the Guards generate income and fund their operations. A previous sanctions resolution simply encouraged states to "exercise vigilance" to ensure that their financial dealing with Iranian banks, including Bank Melli and Bank Saderat, did not result in funds being diverted to banned military programs. The United States wants to strengthen those measures. Both Russia and China have argued that it would be improper to sanction Revolutionary Guard activities that are unrelated to Iran’s banned nuclear and missile activities.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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