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US tightens screws on Iran: Who will join in?

Mark Mardell | 18:44 UK time, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

President Obama at the White House Briefing.jpg

President Obama yesterday warned Iran that "we are developing a significant regime of sanctions". The grammatical logic of his sentence suggested that with "we" he meant the "international community". The big question is still who is included in that pronoun's embrace.

The US has gone it alone today, trying to put the financial squeeze on the Revolutionary Guard. There's no sign so far of anyone else joining in.

The president also said of sanctions: "the UN will be one aspect of that broader effort". One aspect. My guess is that they hope for some co-ordinated action from Russia and the European Union before going down the lengthy and tortuous UN route.

The US treasury action is intended to bite by freezing the assets of a company called Khatam al-Anbiya (The Last Prophet). It is apparently involved in huge contracts to build roads and tunnels, irrigation projects and pipelines within Iran. This is an old, but interesting article which mentions some of its techniques.

Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey is quoted as saying that the Revolutionary Guard "consolidates control over broad swaths of the Iranian economy, displacing ordinary Iranian businessmen in favour of a select group of insiders, it is hiding behind companies like Khatam al-Anbiya and its affiliates to maintain vital ties to the outside world."

So who else is going to help? The president said the Russians were "forward leaning". They seem rather to be swaying gently back and forth.

Russian deputy foreign minister Sergie Ryabkov has said that "in this new situation of course the question of sanctions, of working out a new sanctions resolution, gains additional relevance," while also suggesting they are not a good idea.

Hillary Clinton's attempts to suggest to China that the alternative to sanctions may be chaos in the Middle East and a jump in oil prices doesn't seem to have had any impact.

China seems no nearer agreeing to sanctions and according to this analysis would want something really big in return.

President Obama's policy of creating a new atmosphere so the world's most powerful countries and power blocs act together on the biggest issues is still being tested.

It certainly hasn't failed yet. But the lack of result that can be measured in months will embolden critics still further. For those bored with the whole diplomatic approach, the Foreign Policy magazine has a good cut out and keep guide to those who want to launch the bombers now.

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