WASHINGTON - If there were any doubts about what exactly U.S. President Barack Obama meant when he warned Iran of "growing consequences" during his State of the Union address last month, they seem to be dispelled by recent statements from top administration officials, who are beating the sanctions drum loud and clear.
When U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates spoke of sanctions Monday as the sole remaining option in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, he was echoing another more outspoken colleague - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"The only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track but it will require all of the international community to work together," Gates said during a news conference Monday in Paris with French Defence Minister Herve Morin, regarding the need for tougher sanctions.
Harve was in "complete agreement" with his U.S. counterpart. But should Iran have a last-minute change of heart and concede to Western demands, the U.S. and its allies would be open to "a peaceful way to resolve this issue," the Pentagon chief said.
Clinton had told reporters last Friday "We think it is important that we move now toward looking at what pressure, what sanctions can be brought to bear on the Iranians."
Talk of sanctions does not hurt in Washington and to a lesser degree in Western European capitals, where many are weary of what they see as Iran's mind games and perceived intransigence. In fact, as Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran expert at New York's Syracuse University, says, it has become "a popular sport in Washington" to bash Iran.
The remarks by two senior officials of the Obama administration came after recent contradictory messages coming out of Iran with regard to its nuclear programme. On Feb. 2, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Iranian state television that he had "no problems" with a deal with the West to swap Iran's low enriched uranium for nuclear fuel rods.
Although Ahmadinejad's remarks were largely met with scepticism, they sparked some hope that Iran might be pursuing a different course of action. However, ending any enthusiasm that he might have generated in the outside world, in a 180-degree change, Ahmadinejad ordered the country's nuclear energy organisation last Sunday to start enriching uranium to 20 percent.
Iran needs 20-percent enriched uranium to operate a medical research reactor in the capital, Tehran.
Obama made unprecedented overtures to Iran when he took office last year, to encourage Iran to come to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme. The U.S. and its allies set a deadline for last December for Iran to respond to a proposal for a nuclear fuel exchange deal, but Iran did not accede to Western demands.
"The window for diplomacy is quickly closing. The language of the Obama administration has changed dramatically, and the actions of the Ahmadinejad government has hardly help build confidence," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. "At this stage, a period of punitive and confrontational measures may be politically unavoidable."
Now, with additional sanctions promoted as the new tool for confronting Iran, the key question is how and when the U.S. can get the other two members of the P5+1 club, China and Russia, onboard with other western powers. The P5+1 group is made up of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, a leading trading partner of Iran.
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Although Russia has been recently more in line with Western powers over imposing more sanctions on Iran, China has remained a serious opponent of further punitive measures.
Many analysts attribute Beijing's position to the growing commerce between the two countries. A recent Financial Times report says China is now Iran's number one trading partner, overtaking the European Union (EU).
The volume of Iran's commerce with China stood at 36.5 billion dollars in 2008, according to the FT, while the EU's trade with Iran totaled 35 billion dollars for the same year. In return, Iran supplies 11 percent of China's energy needs, according to the Iran-China Chamber of Commerce.
"I am not holding my breath that these sanctions will work," Boroujerdi told IPS. "It's really hard to sanction an oil-rich state that has something that the rest of the world needs."
Boroujerdi sees the ongoing smuggling activity conducted through the country's borders as another factor that can challenge sanctions' success.
In fact, many experts are deeply sceptical about the effectiveness of sanctions and consider them a failure in general. Although the U.S. and its allies have spoken of "smart sanctions" mostly aimed at Iran's military institutions, such as the Revolutionary Guards and its affiliate businesses, there is a lot of doubt as to whether a sanctions policy can bring an end to Iran's nuclear programme.
The U.S. has imposed a ban on U.S. companies dealing with Iran for the past three decades but, in effect, the sanctions are considered largely ineffective as the Islamic Republic has looked elsewhere for business.
Iran's nuclear programme has not been only a source of controversy in the Western world but also among Middle Eastern countries, particularly Israel. They doubt Iran's nuclear activities are for peaceful energy purposes and charge that Iran is seeking a nuclear bomb.
Iranian officials have repeatedly rejected this claim and say the programme is solely geared toward peaceful purposes, such as producing electricity.
As a deal between Iran and the West appears far-fetched at this point, calls for regime change and use of force against Iran are on the rise. Richard Haas, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, in an article entitled "Enough is Enough", called on Obama administration to work for regime change in Iran, a policy former President George W. Bush unsuccessfully pursued for years.
Daniel Pipes, a neoconservative, has called for bombing Iran, saying it was a way for Obama to "salvage his tottering administration" and protect the U.S. and its allies.