Driven by myopia and sheer bloody-mindedness, the United States and 11 other members of the United Nations Security Council have voted to tighten sanctions on Iran. Brazil and Turkey, which recently brokered an important fuel swap agreement with Tehran, voted against the sanctions resolution while Lebanon abstained. What matters is not the specific provisions contained in the latest round of sanctions but the fact that Washington insisted on pushing them through just when a small window for confidence-building and trust between Iran and the international community had been opened by the Turkish-Brazilian initiative. Under their proposal, which the International Atomic Energy Agency is now considering, Iran will promptly transfer 1,200 kg of low enriched uranium — roughly half the amount the IAEA estimates it has produced to date — to Turkey, where it would be held in escrow. Russia and France would then fabricate an equivalent amount of enriched uranium fuel rods suitable for use in the Tehran Research Reactor. Once these rods are ready, they will be exchanged for the Iranian LEU.
Although the swap addresses an issue distinct from the one Iran is currently being sanctioned for, the successful implementation of the agreement would have been a major confidence-building measure. The U.S. and its allies would have succeeded in removing from the territory of Iran half its LEU stockpile — an amount that could theoretically be used to fabricate one nuclear device should Iran leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty and start weapons-grade enrichment. From the Iranian point of view, it would have demonstrated that the international community was capable of reasonableness and flexibility. From there, the Turks and Brazilians, perhaps supplemented by other powers, might have been able to move their engagement with Iran to a higher level, securing answers to the few remaining questions the IAEA has about the Iranian nuclear programme. But Wednesday's sanctions resolution changes everything. They send a signal to the diverse stakeholders in Tehran that reasonableness doesn't pay. Iran is likely to harden its attitude, thereby allowing the U.S. and its allies to take one more step down the path of confrontation. India, which has a major economic and strategic stake in the preservation of peace in the Persian Gulf and West Asia, should stop being a passive bystander to the crisis that is now looming large. By insisting on sanctions at this stage, the P-5 have only succeeded in scoring own goals. India may not be a member of the U.N. Security Council but that should not preclude it from actively pursuing a diplomatic end to the standoff.