Policy on Iran paying off, US senators told

China and Russia remain difficult to persuade over sanctions against the Islamic republic despite Obama's strategy.

WASHINGTON // Barack Obama's unreciprocated diplomatic overtures to Iran have paid dividends by further isolating the Islamic republic and helping him build support for a new round of United Nations sanctions, top US diplomatic and military officials told a Senate panel yesterday.

"Our efforts at engagement have made it much harder for Iran to deflect attention from the core of the problem, which is its nuclear ambitions and its unwillingness to meet its international obligations," William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It has put us in a much stronger position to mobilise effective international pressure." Ambassadors from China and Russia, two countries that have resisted stiff penalties on Iran for economic reasons, have joined discussions in New York on a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions, a development that the administration has touted as a direct result of its initial diplomatic overtures. Mr Burns said he believed it "likely" that all sides would reach an agreement, though he acknowledged that talks were just getting under way and that it would be a "difficult process".

Few details about the discussions or penalties under consideration have been made public. China, which receives 11 per cent of its energy from Iran, may be concerned about the impact of sanctions on the oil supply, some analysts have said. Mr Burns said it may also be difficult to get China and Russia to go along with sanctions that target companies supplying petrol to Iran, a tactic advocated by many US legislators. Chinaoil, a state-run oil refiner, announced yesterday the sale of 600,000 barrels worth about US$55million (Dh202m) to the Islamic republic, a move that comes at a time when many foreign companies have curbed business there because of American pressure. Lukoil, Russia's second-largest oil company, stopped gasoline sales to Iran this month.

Mr Burns said sanctions were likely to target companies linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which, he said, is "intimately involved" with the country's nuclear programme. In February, the US Treasury cited the growing presence of the IRGC in Iran's financial and commercial sectors, and said the profits from those endeavours fund the IRGC's illicit activities, including support for terrorism.

Mr Burns noted that major banks and energy and insurance companies have recently pulled out of Iran, another example, he said, of the country's increased isolation and the effectiveness of Mr Obama's approach. The White House has pursued a "dual track" strategy that combines diplomatic engagement with the threat of tougher economic penalties. In recent months, as diplomatic overtures have faltered, the White House has sharpened its tone and sought to build support for sanctions.

Earlier this week, Mr Obama held at least 15 bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit, many of them focused on the Iran issue. After a 90-minute closed-door meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, White House officials said they were confident of winning Chinese support for sanctions on Iran at the UN. The administration also has kept military options on the table, according to Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defence for policy, who also testified at the hearing. But she too touted Mr Obama's success in securing co-operation from international partners.

"I think the fact that we made a good faith engagement with Iran has actually brought more of the international community with us now that we are moving to the pressure track," she said. "The fact that we are taking the time to try to get the UN Security Council resolution will provide the legal and political framework that will get us more effective measures by the others like the [European Union]." Not everyone was optimistic about the prospects of Mr Obama's dual-track strategy. John McCain, the ranking Republican member on the Armed Services Committee, said he doubted that Russia and China would agree to meaningful sanctions. "They've been playing rope-a-dope with us for now over a year," he said. "It's long passed time to put teeth into our policy," he said, calling for a new round of unilateral sanctions. Other witnesses at the hearing included the Pentagon's intelligence chief, Lt Gen Ronald Burgess, and Marine Corps Gen James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lt Gen Burgess said he believed Iran could have enough enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon in a year, should the country make the decision to take that path. Gen Cartwright said Iran may need three to five years to make a weapon. sstanek@thenational.ae