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Clinton Strikes Out in Brazil: A Security Council Divided on Iran Sanctions

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Brasilia to mount a full court press on the Brazilian government to support a United Nations Security Council resolution imposing tougher sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities.  (Brazil is presently one of the Council’s ten non-permanent members.)  And, as accumulating media reports indicate, she was politely but clearly rebuffed by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.

Brazil’s rejection of Secretary Clinton’s exhortations to support new sanctions against Iran are focusing media attention on a bigger issue that we have been identifying for some time — namely, that the Obama Administration will not be able to marshal the symbolically useful image of a unanimous Security Council endorsing further sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran (something which the George W. Bush Administration was effectively able to stage for the first three sanctions resolutions).  While, in the end, the Obama Administration will probably be able to muster the minimum nine affirmative votes in the Council to pass a new sanctions resolution, the Council will be deeply divided on the issue, with major powers in the developing world refusing to support further sanctions, either voting “no” or abstaining.

Let’s review the state of play on Iran sanctions within the 15-member Security Council.  Diplomatic sources tell us that, among the five permanent members, the United States, Britain, and France are all signed up to support an extremely tough draft resolution.

U.S. and European officials express growing confidence that Russia will be “on board” for a new sanctions resolution.  But, already, Russian diplomats are demanding that most of the specific measures contained in the draft resolution supported by the United States, Britain, and France be removed.  (This is in keeping with statements from officials close to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and in Russia’s Foreign Ministry insisting that any new sanctions against Iran should — like previous sanctions authorized by the Security Council — be focused on individuals and entities directly involved in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear and missile programs.)

China has not yet formally responded to the draft resolution, but continues to express its opposition to any expansion of sanctions against Iran.  Obama Administration officials continue to assume that China will not want to be the only permanent member of the Council to veto a new sanctions resolution, and can ultimately be persuaded to abstain, rather than voting “no.”  However, getting China to abstain — which would, at least in theory, permit a sanctions resolution to move through the Council — is likely to require that the United States and its European partners scale back dramatically the scope of the specific sanctions contained in the resolution.

If one assumes that Russia will ultimately support a watered-down resolution, along with the United States, Britain, and France, that makes for four affirmative votes among the Security Council’s permanent members.  Among the Council’s ten non-permanent members, Gabon, Japan, Nigeria, and Uganda are virtually certain to vote for a new sanctions resolution; added to the four prospective “yes” votes among the permanent members, that makes for eight affirmative votes.  (We believe that Japan, at least, is quietly anticipating that the draft resolution which is ultimately voted on by the Council will be significantly watered down from the current draft.)  Austria, Bosnia, and Mexico are not automatic affirmative votes, but the United States is likely to get at least one of these states to support a resolution, giving it the minimum nine votes required to pass anything in the Security Council.

But Brazil is clearly indicating that it is not inclined to support new sanctions against Iran, as is Turkey (another non-permanent member).  Brazil is emerging as a global economic power in its own right; Turkey has emerged as an important regional power, both economically and politically.  The willingness of these two countries — both of them are members of the G-20 and have good relations with the United States — to chart their own course on important international issues is a tangible indicator of the ongoing decline in America’s relative power and influence.  The Obama Administration’s apparent failure to understand these countries’ positions on the Iranian nuclear issue is an indicator that President Obama and his most senior advisors fundamentally misunderstand the “race for Iran.”

Lebanon is also highly likely to abstain from voting on a new sanctions resolution.  So, assuming that China, in the end, abstains rather than voting “no” (thereby vetoing the resolution), the Obama Administration will still face significant opposition in the Security Council from important emerging powers in what we used to call the developing world.  And remember, any sanctions resolution that is ultimately passed by the Council will be substantially much weaker than the current U.S.-British-French draft.

Why is the Obama Administration going down such a useless path?  In Brazil, Secretary Clinton said,

Personally speaking, I think it’s only after we pass sanctions in the Security Council that Iran will negotiate in good faith.  That is my belief, that is our administration’s belief: that once the international community speaks in unison around a resolution then the Iranians will come and begin to negotiate.

How could she possibly believe that?  There will not be “unison around a resolution,” and the sanctions which might ultimately be authorized by the Council will add relatively little to those that the Council has previously authorized.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article is excerpted from one first published by The Race for Iran on 4 March 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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