Iran Tops Secretary Clinton's Crowded Agenda

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Iran is still not complying with its international obligations, so the United States and its partners have no choice but to tighten financial sanctions. The U.S. is not only looking to the U.N. Security Council, where there is a lot of skepticism that sanctions could work, but is also preparing its own measures to try to isolate Iran from the international financial system.

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And then there's Afghanistans neighbor, Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Iran has given the United States and its partners no choice. They must push for sanctions, she says, to pressure Iran to curtail its suspected nuclear program. That's the message Secretary Clinton has been delivering this week in hearings on Capitol Hill. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Iran has risen right to the top of Secretary Clinton's crowded agenda. She talks about it in all of her meetings, she says, and she believes she is making progress in convincing countries that it's time to turn up the heat.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. State Department): I have seen over the past year the attitudes about Iran evolve. So even countries that are still not sure they want to sign up to sanctions, they're not sure they want to oppose them, they now understand why the United States views Iran's behavior as a threat.

KELEMEN: In two days of congressional testimony, the secretary repeatedly said that she believes that the U.S. is in a strong position diplomatically because President Obama did try to engage Iran. U.S. and European officials say Russia has come a long way, though China has yet to be convinced. China did quietly agree to put Iran on a blacklist kept by the Financial Action Task Force, known as FATF, a Paris-based group that sets standards for combating money laundering and terrorism financing.

Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury Department official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees that as a significant move.

Mr. MATTHEW LEVITT (Washington Institute for Near East Policy): Iran is given its own special category. It's the only one, even of those that are on the blacklist, for which FATF is recommending, again, in even stronger language as it has already in the past, that countries need to start developing proactive countermeasures to deal with the deceptive financial practices that Iran engages in.

KELEMEN: That means banks and businesses have to be a lot more careful about doing any type of business with Iran. But this doesn't mean that negotiating a U.N. Security Council resolution will be any easier. Diplomats are hoping the Chinese will vote yes but are expecting an abstention. Turkey is also on the Security Council this year and is not a proponent of sanctions.

Ambassador NAMIK TAN (Turkey): We don't believe in sanctions. I should say it never worked.

KELEMEN: That's the new Turkish ambassador to Washington, Namik Tan, who says diplomacy is the only way to resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran.

Mr. TAN: They are the advantage of the chess game. So I think we have to be patient. We have to play in a sophisticated way.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton has been trying to persuade countries that pressure can help diplomacy succeed. She's trying to get the broadest support possible for sanctions, raising it with Turkish officials and planning to discuss it next week in Brazil, another non-veto-holding Security Council member.

Sec. CLINTON: We want sanctions that will be effective and we think the broader, the more likely that is to be.

KELEMEN: Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute says U.N. sanctions won't resolve the problem, but the hope is that they could change the Iranian government's calculation about a nuclear program.

Mr. LEVITT: But even if that, which is a longer shot, is not going to happen, sanctions are extremely effective at disrupting Iran's ability to pursue nuclear and ballistic missile(ph) programs at any kind of a steady pace.

KELEMEN: He's expecting a fairly watered down U.N. resolution but says it will be enough to pave the way for the European Union to move forward with its own measures, which, like U.S. sanctions already announced, are likely to further target the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. As one diplomat put it, that's the heart of the Iranian regime.

The U.S. is also preparing new measures to squeeze Iran's ability to move money through the international financial system.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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