Western Diplomats Moving Carefully on Iran

U.S. and European diplomats walk a delicate line as they confront Iran over a disputed nuclear program. Punishing Iran with economic sanctions is an option, but a series of smaller, more targeted actions may come first.

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From NPR News in Washington, D.C., this WEEKEND EDITION.

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I'm John Ydstie. Scott Simon is out with laryngitis.

On this day, 30 years ago, the first Concorde passenger planes took off, one from London, one from Paris. A team of British and French engineers beat out American and Soviet designers to create the world's fastest way to fly outside of a spacecraft. The biggest engineering challenge was to create a plane that could withstand air friction at supersonic speed. The Concorde was lovely to look at and thrilling to ride, but only 16 were ever built. A Concorde crashed in 2000, and the elegant plane was phased out within three years.

After the newscast, the U.S. considers sanctions against Iran.

Today is Saturday, January 21, 2006.

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YDSTIE: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

The U.S. and Europe are involved in intensive diplomatic efforts to keep the heat on Iran to halt programs many diplomats fear could help Tehran get a nuclear bomb.

Iran already seems to be anticipating economic sanctions down the road. This week, its central bank chief said that Iran's foreign currency reserves will be withdrawn from European banks. But diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic say they are only considering targeted sanctions as a way to keep Iran isolated.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

Diplomats are far from the point where they would seek the imposition of sanctions on Iran. The first step is simply getting the United Nations Security Council to deal with Iran. And to do that, the U.S. and Europe are trying to get the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors to refer Iran to New York.

Russia, a key player, has been seeking a slower two-step approach, but today State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack made clear he expects the IAEA Board of Governors to act at its forthcoming emergency meeting.

Mr. SEAN MCCORMACK (Spokesman, State Department): Make no mistake about it, we, the EU3 and others, are firmly behind referral to the Security Council at the, coming out of the February 2 meeting in Vienna.

KELEMEN: Some diplomats are suggesting that the Security Council start by simply issuing a firm statement demanding that Iran comply with its international obligations. The threat of sanctions would be further down the road.

One European diplomat put it this way, if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will just jump out and survive. But it won't survive if you turn up the heat slowly.

George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace believes this is the right approach.

Mr. GEORGE PERKOVICH (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): People should understand or envision a process of going to the Security Council as something where you have a dial of measures, and you just dial it up over time. And so the first step is, you know, to get a condemnation, et cetera. Then when you get to sanctions, if you get to sanctions, you start with things like travel bans. You don't allow Iranian officials or their family members to travel to certain places.

KELEMEN: U.S. and European diplomats want to avoid broad sanctions that would only anger average Iranians.

Patrick Clawson, an Iran watcher with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, hears much more talk about freezing personal assets.

Mr. PATRICK CLAWSON (Reporter, Washington Institute for Near East Policy): There's a sense that comprehensive economic sanctions has been a very blunt instrument, not very effective at accomplishing its objective, and causing lots of collateral damage. So the strong preference is for more targeted sanctions that hit at a country's leaders.

KELEMEN: Clawson says, while Iran's president may be making statements that isolate him, most Iranians do care about what the outside world thinks of them and don't want to be seen as international outcasts.

Mr. CLAWSON: Most Iranians and most Iranian leaders seem not to want to be isolated. So that diplomatic isolation still offers pretty decent prospects.

KELEMEN: This slow moving diplomacy is a change in approach for the Bush administration, and a wise one, according to Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment.

Mr. PERKOVICH: There's a recognition, perhaps informed by the experience in Iraq, that we really can't do these things alone or with a coalition of the United Kingdom and a few others; that the way to get a country as strong as Iran, and remember, Iran is three times the size of Iraq, to change its policy is you have to have most of the world united behind you.

KELEMEN: And to build that consensus, U.S. and European diplomats have been globetrotting, visiting member countries of the IAEA Board of Governors before the February 2 meeting. U.S. diplomats have been traveling to India, Russia and China for instance, while the French are covering countries that have more difficult relations with Washington, Venezuela, and Cuba.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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