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Nuclear Worries

January 23, 2008

An agreement by the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany to strengthen sanctions on Iran isn't as positive as it may sound, DW guest commentator Bahman Niruman says.


At a meeting in Berlin on Tuesday, Jan. 22, the six nations agreed on the wording of a draft resolution to impose fresh sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

"Together, we urgently call on the leadership of Iran to meet the demands of the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency without constraints," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Tuesday, Jan. 22, after a two-hour meeting in Berlin of foreign ministers from the five-plus-one nations.

"I also say: Teheran has what it takes to find the way to cooperation and compromise. There is no confrontation here. We want a peaceful solution," Steinmeier added.

But for all the noise, the foreign minister's cries are the roar of a toothless lion. Teheran knows perfectly well that the apparently unified position in Berlin is actually very shaky.

Of course, all the countries involved agree that, whatever it takes, Iran should be prevented from gaining access to nuclear weapons.

"We agree on the understanding that nuclear armaments in Iran would have dramatic consequences," Steinmeier said.

Bahman Nirumand
Bahman NirumandImage: picture alliance / dpa

But as is so often the case, the devil is in the details.

First of all, the position of the permanent members and Germany toward Iran was strongly compromised by recent American intelligence reports, which claim Tehran already shut down its atomic weapons program in 2003. There is a danger it could be started again, but even then, the country would need years to build an atom bomb.

In addition, Tehran told the IAEA it would answer all pending questions by mid-March. This increasingly diminishes the plausibility of taking strong action against Tehran.

Despite this, the USA, Great Britain, and now France are calling for stronger sanctions. And they refuse to rule out the option of a military attack. Germany tends toward seeking a diplomatic response to the conflict.

The fact that Foreign Minister Steinmeier made a departure from this basic position in the past weeks and quickly (perhaps too quickly) organized the meeting in Berlin, could have to do with issues unrelated to the Iranian atomic conflict.

Up to now, Russia and China have clearly spoken out in opposition to sanctions. There is no reason to expect them to change course anytime soon. Both countries have significant economic interests in Iran. Russia, Iran's biggest arms provider, is building the country's first atomic power station, and delivers its atomic fuel. China is dependent on Iranian oil and gas, and is busy conquering the Iranian market.

According to diplomats involved, in order to reconcile the various positions of the six powers, the participants in Berlin agreed on the phrase "moderate intensification" of the current sanctions. Whatever they mean by that, it would be naïve to believe that it would do anything to intimidate the reigning Islamists in Tehran.

Just prior to the Berlin meeting, Tehran government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham said the country would stay on the path to its current nuclear goals, and would do so within a "legal and legitimate framework." This plan would not be change by a new UN resolution, he said.

This comment could be seen as an act of defiance, but also as a sign that Islamists do not fear sanctions, because sanctions don't have any serious effects.

This same conclusion was reached by the investigative arm of the US Congress, the Genera Accountability Organization. According to a January GAO report, Tehran has signed contracts valued at $20 billion (14 billion euros) to exploit raw-material deposits since 2003: "Iran's world-wide trade ties and its leading role in energy production make it hard to isolate Iran and to exercise pressure."

But even if sanctions would damage Iran's economy and start a crisis there, everyone knows that the country's rulers are aware that the sanctions would hurt the people, but would not bring the government to its knees.

On the contrary, the ruling regime lives from permanent crises. It uses these to take everyone's mind off its own incompetency, to strengthen repression of its critics, and to motivate its adherents to fight enemies both real and imagined.

Seen in this light, even if they can be agreed upon, stronger sanctions will fail to bring about the hoped-for results.

Bahman Nirumand studied German, philosophy and Iranian studies in Munich, Tübingen and Berlin. He was a victim of political persecution under the Shah's regime and was forced to leave Iran in the 1960s. He now works as a freelance journalist, writer and academic in Berlin. (jen)