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Sanctions for Iran, but at what cost?

The announcement Tuesday that the world’s major powers had agreed to a new round of sanctions for Iran was a measure of progress in the effort to keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb. But it may have also been a setback in the broader push to control the spread of nuclear weapons, a top priority for the Obama administration.

The agreement comes just as diplomats from around the world are gathering for a summit on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the landmark 1970 agreement designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. The U.S. has sought to strengthen the treaty by making it harder to withdraw, as North Korea has, and imposing stiffer penalties for countries, like Iran, that flaunt provisions requiring inspections of nuclear facilities.

Photo: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

The talks are just now entering a critical phase, as countries sharpen their positions on the treaty and haggle over the changes. And Iran has thrown up as many roadblocks to that process as possible, hosting its own nuclear summit earlier this year and pitting members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a loose confederacy of developing nations, against the West. So far, those tactics have failed.

But now, observers say, Iran’s allies may feel spurned by the U.S.-led agreement on sanctions. Brazil, for example, helped broker a nuclear fuel swap deal between Iran and Turkey, hoping to restart talks with the West. The announcement by the U.S., which came just a day after that agreement, could be seen as a repudiation of their efforts.

As David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector, put it, “you have Turkey and Brazil kind of being rolled a little bit.” That, he added, could make them less willing to cooperate with the U.S. on efforts to strengthen the nonproliferation treaty.

“I would expect there’s going to be trouble,” said Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. “What could happen is, if there are a lot of bitter feelings by Turkey and Brazil, they could make it so NAM remains opposed. And so that would be a problem, if you have a split between NAM and the Western group.”

Until now, there has been considerable evidence that Iran’s traditional allies in the developing world, and specifically within the Non-Aligned Movement, have been distancing themselves from the Iranian regime. Last year, Malaysia dismissed its envoy to the U.N. nuclear watchdog after he voted against a resolution rebuking Iran. In that same vote, Egypt, Pakistan and South Africa chose to abstain rather than side with Iran.

And in April, just two days after sending representatives to Tehran for a summit on nuclear weapons, Singapore publicly condemned remarks by Iran’s foreign minister denouncing the West.

Taken together, these events suggest that Iran has become isolated, even from its own allies, said Deepti Choubey, deputy director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment.

“Iran has been losing influence, particularly with the Non-Aligned Movement,” Choubey said. “They never miss a chance to overplay their hand, and I think we’re starting to see the results of that.”

The challenge, Choubey said, is to convince Iran that its influence is waning, and that it should cooperate with the international community on safeguards to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. But with Brazil and Turkey stewing over the U.S.-led effort to impose sanctions, the task may be more difficult than ever.

“They really have lost influence, and hopefully, somebody can reflect that back to them, so they realize that it’s in their best interest to seriously cooperate,” Choubey said. “That’s the hope of where all of this goes.”