WASHINGTON — The United Nations nuclear agency blasted Iran in a resolution Friday for obstructing investigations into its suspected nuclear-weapons program and demanded that the Islamic Republic stop construction of a once-secret facility.
In response, the Obama administration suggested that world powers might be moving closer to imposing international sanctions on Iran. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called a 25-3 vote on the resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency "overwhelming" and said it "demonstrates the resolve and unity of the international community with regard to Iran's nuclear program."
"Our patience and that of the international community is limited, and time is running out," Gibbs said. "If Iran refuses to meet its obligations, then it will be responsible for its own growing isolation and the consequences."
On Thursday, Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing head of the IAEA, issued an unusually blunt public statement, saying that Iran has refused to give his investigators information about its efforts to design a nuclear weapon and that the agency's efforts to discover the truth had "effectively reached a dead end."
Although it can be difficult to distinguish Iran's bottom lines from its bargaining positions, Tehran's refusal to carry out a tentative deal in October to ship most of its nuclear fuel to Russia and France for reprocessing leaves other nations with two ways to try to ensure that Iran doesn't obtain nuclear weapons: tough sanctions and pre-emptive military action.
Israeli officials have said that they consider a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat, and Israel crippled Saddam Hussein's nuclear program with an airstrike in 1981. However, it isn't clear whether — without U.S. assistance — Israel's military could deal a comparable blow to Iran's nuclear facilities, which are farther away, more spread out and deeply buried.
It also remains unclear how far China and Russia, which joined in support of Friday's resolution but have scuttled past attempts to sanction Iran, would go now — or whether sanctions could curb Iran's nuclear activities.
Two senior Obama administration officials who spoke Friday from Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered, emphasized that any decision on sanctions is weeks away.
As for China and Russia, "We intend to take this very steadily," said one of the officials, both of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity as a matter of administration policy. However, "I think their commitment is clear."
This was the IAEA's first such vote against Iran in nearly four years. Cuba, Malaysia and Venezuela voted no, and six nations abstained.
Gary Sick, a Columbia University expert on Iran who once served on the staff of the National Security Council, said the vote could be significant enough to convince Iran to return to the table for renewed talks, despite a defiant initial response.
"I think the Iranians will hear this very clearly, the fact that both the Russians and Chinese voted yes, that you can't just count on them to be your perpetual supporters," Sick said. "It's conceivable they might come back with a counteroffer of some sort. I hope very much that this will lead to another round of discussions."
However, Sick said, "The vote by the Russians and the Chinese should not be taken as an indicator they're now prepared to go to really severe sanctions."
Even if they are, and if all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus one — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.S. — do agree to any sanctions, Sick predicted that it "will after a lot of negotiation turn out to be a tightening of the financial screws. And if it's simply a tightening of the financial screws, I don't think it will make much difference. In other words, the bark is much worse than the bite."
"The Iranians don't like sanctions and they also don't like being singled out for public criticism," Sick said. "That doesn't mean they're going to turn around and change their whole policy."
During a meeting with six world leaders Oct. 1 in Geneva, Iran agreed to open its once-secret facility in Qom to IAEA inspectors and to send its partially enriched uranium from a Tehran nuclear reactor to France and Russia to be turned into fuel for medical research. So far, though, it's refused a follow-up meeting.
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is peaceful in nature, despite its secretive attitude and hostility toward Israel. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Friday through the Islamic Republic News Agency that the IAEA resolution was "showy" and "vain."
One U.S. senior official said that any sanctions that might be considered would look to hurt the Iranian regime, not everyday Iranians, but he didn't elaborate.
The administration said that Iran had until the end of the year to engage cooperatively; after that it may face a "package of consequences."
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