After months of delicate diplomacy the United States is on the brink of ushering in a fourth round of punitive UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear enrichment programme.
Passage of the sanctions resolution through the UN Security Council would be a moment of reckoning for Iran. Just as the US has worked tirelessly to make it happen, Tehran has spared no effort to stop it. Sources said that the measures, aimed at further isolating the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were likely to be approved later today.
"This is a more robust set of sanctions than we've ever had on Iran," insisted Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the UN. "One of the reasons we think these sanctions will hurt is that the Iranians have been fighting so hard to defeat them."
Diplomats expect a 12-to-3 vote in the council with non-permanent members Turkey, Brazil and Lebanon siding against the resolution. Despite months of reluctance, Russia and China appeared ready to cast "yes" votes. Both governments are normally disinclined to support sanctions. Additionally they have extensive economic ties with Iran. For months, Washington has been quietly briefing world leaders and foreign ministers on why it believes Iran is lying when it says its nuclear programme is purely civilian in purpose.
"In all, it is impressive that the draft survived so close to its original form and that it has continued to move ahead speedily with the support of China and Russia. Ambassador Rice deserves a raise," said Jacqueline Shire, a nuclear expert at the Institute for Science and International Security.
Still, even last night China was negotiating to limit the number of financial entities to be identified in annexes to the text. A compromise would see only one Iran bank actually named, the Export Bank of Iran. "It is better than having nothing, which is what we feared might have been the case," said one Western source.
The main text seeks to broaden the impact of existing UN sanctions. It would enhance an arms embargo by banning the export of most forms of heavy weaponry, encourage countries to stop and inspect ships and aircraft bound for Iran if there is any suspicion that their cargo might be tied to the nuclear industry, and more specifically focus measures on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the elite military wing.
For President Barack Obama, passage of the resolution cannot come too soon. He originally set the end of last year as a deadline for new sanctions on Iran. However, the vote is coming at a moment when tensions in the region are already extremely high as Iran squares off against Israel over its continuing blockade of Gaza. There may be some risk that the vote in New York will convince Iran to step up its anti-Israel rhetoric and maneouvering.
The endless cycle of international confrontation continues, meanwhile, to serve some useful domestic purposes for President Ahmadinejad who will portray the UN vote as a fresh attack on Iran and its sovereignty engineered by its foes – the US and Israel. All these events help him distract the Iranian people from problems at home.
Amnesty International drew attention yesterday to the first anniversary of the unrest in Iran that followed last year's disputed re-election of Mr Ahmadinejad, noting that the regime has stepped up its political repression with large numbers of dissidents including lawyers and journalists remaining in prison.
"The Iranian government is determined to silence all dissenting voices, while at the same time trying to avoid all scrutiny by the international community into the violations connected to the post-election unrest," noted Claudio Cordone, the interim secretary general of Amnesty International.
The sanctions vote, meanwhile, threatened to eclipse all other business at a regional summit in Istanbul last night attended by Iran, Russia and the host, Turkey. Mr Ahmadinejad exposed his anger at Russia's support for the package. "There is no big problem, but they must be careful not to be on the side of the enemies of the Iranian people," he said of the Russians. He was later to have bilateral talks with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
And while the draft UN text invites Iran to negotiate a diplomatic settlement, Mr Ahmadinejad signalled that would be off the table should sanctions pass. "If the US and its allies think they could hold the stick of sanctions and then sit and negotiate with us, they are seriously mistaken," he said.
The sanctions package is weaker than the Americans originally wanted. However, the UN vote is likely to be followed by the imposition of additional unilateral sanctions against Iran by both the US and the European Union.
The sanctions would...
* Significantly expand restrictions on arms sales to Iran to include eight new categories including tanks, fighter planes and missile systems.
* Impose a new ban on Iran investing in industries relating to the mining and enriching of uranium abroad. Likewise, Iran investment in missile-development industries overseas is banned. This is a new element included because of efforts by Iran to invest in mining operations in Zimbabwe and work with Syria developing missiles.
* Introduce a regime to encourage UN countries to stop and search any vessels or aircraft travelling to and from Iran suspected of carrying goods related to its nuclear efforts.
* Contain annexes that would include lists of new Iranian entities and individuals to be blacklisted.
* Impose measures against any Iranian bank suspected of having financial ties to Iran's nuclear programme. This includes a call on member states to desist doing business with any Iranian banks suspected of supporting nuclear effort.