Opinion: UN sanctions risk real progress on Iran

Editor's note: Stephen Kinzer, author of the new book "Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future," has just left Iran, where he had a rare glimpse inside the country at a time when many correspondents are being denied journalist visas. He traveled on a tourist visa and, now that he is out, offers GlobalPost this analysis and a series of upcoming reports on his recent journey.

FRANKFURT, Germany — Just one day after the announcement of a deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil to defuse the gathering crisis over Iran's nuclear program, the United Nations has finally come up with a draft resolution to press for harsh sanctions on Iran.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council have drafted a resolution setting out a new sanctions package designed to pressure Iran to curtail its nuclear program.

The draft, which Clinton said Russia and China had accepted, was being circulated to the full Security Council.

Should the U.N. continue pressing for harsher sanctions even as Turkey and Brazil work to arrange a nuclear fuel swap that would send 1,200 kilograms of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Turkey?

No, say the Turkish and Brazilian leaders who brokered the deal. "This plan is a route for dialogue and takes away any grounds for sanctions," Foreign Minister Celso Amorim of Brazil told reporters after the breakthrough in Tehran.

Not so fast, the Obama administration has replied. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs issued a statement in Washington suggesting that the new deal was “simply words.” He insisted that if Iran does not make more concessions, it must “face consequences, including sanctions.”

The Turkey-Brazil deal does not end the possibility that Iran could one day develop nuclear weapons. Specialists have already begun picking it apart, and they have found worrying loopholes. Nonetheless it includes some tantalizing concessions. By reflexively dismissing it, the United States risks seeming unreasonable and petulant. A wiser course would be to welcome the deal as a promising foundation, and seek positive ways to build on it.

If this crisis were about almost any country other than Iran, the U.S. and its friends in London and Paris would probably have taken this tack. In their dealings with Iran, though, Western powers often seem guided more by emotion than cool calculation. They sometimes behave as if they will accept nothing less than a full Iranian surrender, preferably including a strong dose of public humiliation. That approach to a proud country with 25 centuries of rich history is doomed to fail.

When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran turned up in New York to address a nuclear review conference a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. might have seen his appearance as a splendid opportunity. The White House could have assembled an all-star team of diplomats to engage him, try to understand more fully what he is seeking, and look for areas of possible compromise. Instead, like spoiled children accustomed to having their way, American delegates to the conference stood up and left the hall in the middle of his speech. 

Actions like this reflect how difficult it is for Western powers, and especially the U.S., to accept their diminished authority in the world. They face a rebellion from the periphery, represented in this case by Turkey and Brazil. These emerging powers refuse to be hemmed in by the either/or dichotomies that have been the basis of America’s approach to the world since the early days of the Cold War. 

By brokering the deal with Iran, Turkey and Brazil have immensely complicated the American push for sanctions. There was undoubtedly much dismay in Washington when, hours after the deal was struck, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China said his country “expresses its welcome” and looks forward to more negotiations.

This is the path Turkey’s visionary foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, urged the U.S. to follow. "Discussions on sanctions will spoil the atmosphere," he warned after returning to Istanbul.  "Each side now should have a positive approach, constructive style and a real intention and objective of dialogue rather than focusing on mutual suspicion, skepticism, mutual threats, sanctions or other options.”

There are at least three good reasons for the U.S. to try responding positively to the new deal, rather than dismissing it out of hand and pressing ahead with its drive for harsh sanctions on Iran.

First, the sanctions proposal has considerably less global support now than it did before the Tehran deal was struck on Monday.

Second, experience from Belgrade to Baghdad shows that sanctions tend to punish the poor and enrich a criminal class of smugglers; in Iran they might also help turn a remarkably pro-American population toward anti-Americanism.

Third and most important, the Turkey-Brazil deal holds out a glimmer of hope for resolution of a crisis that, if left unsolved, could gravely destabilize the world’s most volatile region.

It may be true, as the U.S. insists, that Iran has managed to fool its Turkish and Brazilian interlocutors and has no real interest in compromise on the nuclear issue. Given the high stakes, though, it is self-defeating for the U.S. not to seize this chance and see what can be made of it. Not doing so encourages the view that the West does not really want a deal at all.