WASHINGTON — As they have three times before, the U.S. and leading European powers are gearing up to impose United Nations sanctions on Iran, steps that since 2006 have failed to deter Tehran from continuing its suspected nuclear weapons program.
This time, however, there's a new ingredient in the diplomatic mix: Iran's political opposition, which bloomed as the "green movement" during June's disputed presidential election and has proved to be more resilient than leaders in either Tehran or Washington expected.
Diplomats, who requested anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations, said they're trying to craft new punishments that won't backfire against opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but widen fissures within the regime and its principal security force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
"Everyone agrees that we have to be very careful when we tailor our sanctions, not to let those sanctions have an impact" on the Iranian population at large, a senior European diplomat said.
The opposition "has become much more of a political movement than before. This is developing (in areas of Iran) even outside of Tehran," he said.
Broad sanctions against Iran's oil exports and imports of refined petroleum products, which could devastate the country's struggling economy, are off the table for now. They're opposed in any case by China, which is the least enthusiastic about new sanctions of the five permanent, veto-holding members of the U.N. Security Council.
Instead, the Obama administration is proposing measures that would target the Revolutionary Guard and the numerous companies it controls; slap travel bans on senior Iranian officials; tighten existing controls on Iran's banks; and clamp down on Iran's state-controlled shipping company.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in London this week to attend conferences on Yemen and Afghanistan, conferred with her counterparts on Iran — including a meeting with China's foreign minister.
The minister, Yang Jiechi, on Thursday reiterated China's preference for more talks with Iran, dealing Clinton at least a temporary setback. "Iran's nuclear issue should be resolved through diplomatic efforts and negotiations," Yang said after meeting Clinton, the Reuters news agency reported.
While U.S. officials predicted that China eventually would accede, Beijing is likely to insist on softening a sanctions package, which could take weeks, if not months to negotiate.
President Barack Obama is facing pressure in a different direction from Capitol Hill, where the U.S. Senate approved legislation Thursday that would target Iran's energy sector, punishing international companies that sell it refined fuel or invest in its refineries.
Nine Democratic and Republican senators wrote to Obama on Wednesday, urging him to impose additional unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran. "We are acutely aware of the limits of Security Council action, in particular given the likely resistance to meaningful sanctions by the People's Republic of China," wrote the group, which included Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's opponent in the 2008 presidential campaign.
The turn to sanctions marks a new chapter for Obama, who came to office determined to open negotiations with Iran after 30 years' hostility.
Iran insists that its enrichment of uranium is for a civilian nuclear power program. However, it's rebuffed U.S.-European proposals — probably, analysts say, due to its domestic turmoil — including an offer to enrich 75 percent of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to refuel a research reactor in Tehran.
In his State of the Union speech Wednesday, Obama said that "as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise."
No one is predicting that Iran's opposition will topple the country's theocratic regime anytime soon, if ever. U.S. officials, even in private, avoid using the term "regime change" to describe their policy goals. Nor is it clear that a new government in Tehran would take a different tack on Iran's nuclear work, which has broad support across society.
Obama administration officials are wary of basing their Iran policy on a protest movement that could fizzle, and remain focused primarily on the nuclear program.
Yet the protests, sparked by allegations that Ahmadinejad stole the June 12 election, have flared repeatedly in the months since, despite the regime's security forces' use of violence to suppress them.
New demonstrations are widely expected on Feb. 11, the anniversary of the collapse of the late shah of Iran's regime, which ushered in Iran's Islamic government.
U.S. and European officials say there are signs of division within the middle ranks of the Revolutionary Guard and among advisors to Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei. Some are advocating compromise with the protesters, they said.
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