Inter Press Service
The Barack Obama administration is preparing a new batch of sanctions against Iran to be announced next week in advance of nuclear talks in Turkey.
Two Iran experts in Washington who are usually well briefed about U.S. Iran policy said more Iranian officials would be designated as abusers of human rights on top of eight sanctioned earlier this year. That would deny them the right to travel to the U.S. and freeze any assets they might hold in this country.
Gary Samore, White House coordinator on non-proliferation, told a neoconservative organisation, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, last week that the U.S. would "maintain and even increase pressure" against Iran so long as negotiations produced no progress on curbing Iran's nuclear programme.
Asked by IPS if that meant new punishments before a meeting expected in January in Istanbul, Samore said, "I think it would be an important message to send to take additional measures."
U.S. officials have described two days of talks with Iran in Geneva last week – the first in more than a year – as underwhelming. Samore said there had been "no visible progress".
Another U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Iranian delegation, led by national security adviser Saeed Jalili, spent most of the time in "political posturing". Unlike last year's session, there was no one-on- one meeting between Jalili and the top U.S. representative, undersecretary of State Bill Burns.
However, U.S. officials remain hopeful that at the least, sanctions will slow Iran's nuclear progress, and at best, change Iran's cost-benefit analysis regarding a programme with potential military applications.
"I believe that if the cost is high enough, they will accept suspension" of their uranium enrichment programme, Samore said last week.
Iranian officials have given no indication of such flexibility. In fact, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said repeatedly that he will not suspend enrichment of uranium, which has given Iran a stockpile of more than 3,000 kilogrammes of lightly processed nuclear fuel.
U.S. officials this week were trying to understand what impact if any the forced exit of Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki would have on negotiations.
Mottaki is to be replaced by Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation. Educated in the United States at M.I.T., Salehi is certainly well versed in nuclear matters. But the abrupt manner of his appointment – while Mottaki was on a diplomatic mission in Africa – has further alienated Iranian conservatives who are increasingly worried by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's consolidation of power and who blocked a tentative nuclear deal last year.
Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, called the substitution of Salehi for Mottaki "a mixed bag". If Iran is serious about a resolution of the nuclear dispute, Salehi could be an asset, Parsi said, but he might be weaker on other issues.
There was a flurry of negative reaction to the move even in Iran's highly restricted press. This is despite the fact that Mottaki has been more spokesman than player in Iranian foreign affairs throughout his five-year tenure and especially since disputed 2009 presidential elections.
At a conference in Bahrain earlier this month, he literally ran away from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the same time, he described as positive Clinton's remarks that Iran might be allowed to enrich uranium at some point in the future – if it satisfied international concerns.
The Obama administration has focused on the nuclear issue with Iran, but has also sought to show concern for human rights in the wake of a brutal government crackdown on protestors following last year's elections.
In September, the White House designated eight Iranian officials, including the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, the intelligence minister and the former chief prosecutor, for "serious human rights abuses against the people of Iran".
At the time, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the "list of names is not exhaustive and will continue to grow based on events in Iran, and as additional information and evidence becomes available".
Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois newly elected to fill Obama's old seat in the Senate, has suggested that the Obama administration go further and "make human rights a central tenet of future negotiations with Iran".
Keynoting the Foundation for Defense of Democracies conference last week, Kirk – who helped author a major sanctions bill when he was in the House – said that President Obama should invite exiled members of the opposition Green Movement to meet him at the White House, increase funding for Iranian democracy promotion and make Iranian political prisoners "household names throughout America" much as Ronald Reagan did with Soviet detainees in the 1980s.