The imposition of sanctions on Iran by Canada, Britain and the United States on Monday had its origins in high-level talks dating back to August.
Trying to prod other Western nations to apply tougher pressure on Tehran, Canada stood alongside Britain in barring most financial transactions, and arguably went further than the United States, which triggered new scrutiny of transactions with Iran by declaring the country a “primary money-laundering concern.”
The sanctions were a response to a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, issued Nov. 8, raising new concerns that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. But anticipating the tenor of the report before its release, officials in London, Washington and Ottawa began preparing for a new round of sanctions months earlier.
“We knew we had to have this discussion,” one diplomat familiar with the talks said. “If it goes that way, and this comes out and points the finger at Iran, and says, ‘What you’re doing, in terms of the possible military dimension, is disturbing,’ how are we supposed to respond? What can we do next?”
They faced a conundrum in their campaign to pressure Iran to enter direct talks on its nuclear plans. Several Western countries had already adopted sanctions, but Russia and China have blocked efforts to make them global. The question was how to gain new momentum in turning the heat up on Tehran.
Canada’s strong views, expressed through previous sanctions and successive statements by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers, were reinforced as Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird took up the campaign with zeal. He repeatedly called Iran the world’s greatest security threat and regularly raised its nuclear program in meetings with foreign ministers from other countries, a Canadian official said.
In August, through diplomatic channels, Britain asked Canada whether Ottawa would act on new sanctions if London did, an official said. Mr. Baird instructed his officials to prepare a plan, and pushed for it. He later told the British, via senior diplomats, that Canada would be “absolutely” prepared to act with them.
Officials from Canada, Britain and the United States worked on options for sanctions. In October, at a Commonwealth summit in Australia, Mr. Baird and British Foreign Secretary William Hague had a brief talk confirming they were on the same page, and sent their officials back to talk to U.S. counterparts.
In a world where Russia and China were blocking United Nations sanctions, tough new measures by Britain, Canada and the United States could not only serve to isolate those countries, but pressure the 27-member European Union to catch up, it was reasoned. France was approached to join the group, but decided it couldn’t roll out sanctions for the time set by the other three countries, a source said.
But French President Nicolas Sarkozy responded to Monday’s three-nation announcement of sanctions by advocating more than catch-up: He called for sweeping sanctions, including freezing the assets of Iran’s central bank and asking Western nations and Japan to stop buying Iranian oil. On Tuesday, the EU agreed in principle to sanction 200 additional Iranian individuals and companies, with the new package of sanctions expected to be made official at a Dec. 1 meeting of foreign ministers.
Efforts to ratchet up sanctions still face a fine balance. Israel’s warnings that Iran’s nuclear program would be unstoppable within a year raised fears that Israel would launch military strikes, possibly drawing the United States and other allies in. As a result, countries feel they have to speed the process up. But in a global economic slowdown, sanctions blocking Iranian oil could spike prices and spark recession.
But that balance still leaves Western nations trying to cajole Iran to agree to talks on its nuclear program – and, Western diplomats said, stressing that that’s the real goal of increasingly painful sanctions.
“We’re not trying to apply some sort of trade war on the Iranians,” one diplomat said. “It’s supposed to be set in the context of telling the Iranians we want to have this discussion on civil use of nuclear power.”