UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council on Monday imposed a third round of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, even though some members acknowledged that more penalties were unlikely to change Tehran's mind.
Key powers also offered political and economic incentives to get the country to stop enrichment and start talking again.
The sponsors of the resolution, the five permanent council members plus Germany, said they were trying to provide Iran with a choice between isolation and engagement, and that the new sanctions were intended to demonstrate that the council was serious.
"Nobody said the sanctions resolution will bring us to the desired result," said German Ambassador Thomas Matussek. "The result can only be brought about by negotiations, but we must show we are credible."
The new round of sanctions expands the list of people and companies involved in Iran's nuclear program subject to travel bans and having their financial assets frozen. It increases monitoring of Iranian banks, particularly Bank Melli and Bank Saderat, which are believed to have financed procurement of nuclear technologies. For the first time, it allows for the inspection of suspect cargo in ports and airports, but not on the high seas.
At the same time, the six countries renewed a 2006 offer to help Iran develop a modern nuclear power program, including the supply of nuclear fuel, as well as normalizing political and trade relations in exchange for suspension of enrichment.
Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, already provides fuel for a nuclear power plant it has built in Bushehr in southern Iran.
Iran dismissed the previous offer as demeaning, saying accepting it would make the country dependent on others. Its U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, rejected the latest resolution even before the vote, saying the Security Council was about to make an "unjust and irrational decision on Iran's nuclear program" and that Iran would not give up the right to enrich uranium.
Uranium enriched to low levels can be used as fuel to produce electricity. At much higher levels of enrichment, it can be used to make a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only; the U.S. and its allies have long feared that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear weapon.
Iran has not only refused to halt enrichment, it has accelerated its program, testing a new homegrown centrifuge that can enrich uranium two or three times faster than the models it procured from Pakistan's illicit nuclear network, according to U.N. reports.
Although the two previous sanctions resolutions were unanimous, this time Indonesia abstained, arguing that Iran would not stop enrichment but might stop cooperating with U.N. inspectors.
The resolution nearly died in December because of a U.S. intelligence report that seemed to bolster Iran's claims that it was not pursuing a nuclear weapon. But Iran's refusal to answer questions about secret weapon designs and continuation of its enrichment activities brought the council's key members together in support of more sanctions.
The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released in December concluded that Iran had abandoned its military nuclear program in 2003. But the report also says that it could not determine whether Iran had the capability to make a nuclear weapon in the future, a fact which the U.S. and Europeans built on to win back support from Russia and China.
"The NIE had the effect of getting people to lose their bearings and it took a while for people to understand what the NIE was, and what it wasn't," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. But the important conclusion, he said, was that Iran had a nuclear weapons program at one point, and may still have the capability to produce an atomic bomb.
The U.S. declassified information it gave the International Atomic Energy Agency two years ago, and allowed the agency to present the documents to Iran and the IAEA board of governors for the first time in February. Some of the documents were gleaned from a laptop computer the CIA said it had acquired from an Iranian technician. Iran had refused to answer the IAEA's questions based on the documents, calling them "politically motivated" and "baseless."
Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's deputy director general, showed diplomats highlights of the "laptop documents" along with information from other countries and the agency's own investigations about Iran's studies of how to make a nuclear warhead.
The designs, he concluded, had no other use than the development of a nuclear weapon. He also emphasized, according to notes acquired by The Times, that the agency could not conclude whether Iran ever produced weapons, or even if the data on the laptop was genuine.
What changed people's minds is "the fact that Iran has not come clean, has not admitted to the work that the NIE stated had been carried out," said Khalilzad.