UNITED NATIONS, March 24 -- The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Saturday to approve a resolution that bans all Iranian arms exports and freezes some of the financial assets of 28 Iranian individuals and entities linked to Iran's military and nuclear agencies.
The 15-nation council imposed the latest sanctions in response to Iran's refusal to abide by repeated U.N. demands to halt its most sensitive nuclear activities, including the enrichment of uranium and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The council seeks verifiable assurances from Iran that it is not pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
The council also threatened to impose new penalties on Tehran after 60 days if it does not cease its nuclear activities and provide far greater cooperation to U.N. inspectors seeking to determine whether Iran's nuclear program is peaceful.
"The unanimous passage today of Resolution 1747 sends a clear and unambiguous message to Iran that the regime's continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability . . . will only further isolate Iran and make it less, not more, secure," the U.S. representative to the Security Council, Alejandro D. Wolff, said after the vote.
The 15-0 vote came a day after Iranian forces seized 15 British sailors and marines in the northern Persian Gulf, an action that raised tensions already running high over the nuclear issue. Iran charged that the Britons had crossed into Iranian waters illegally. British officials maintained that the personnel were in Iraqi waters as part of their U.N.-mandated mission in the Persian Gulf.
The measures adopted Saturday by the council fell far short of the punishing trade and military sanctions favored by the United States and its European partners. But U.S. and European diplomats said it would contribute to further isolating Iran internationally.
U.S. officials acknowledged that the U.N. sanctions are not as tough as they had hoped. But they said they constitute one of several pressure points -- including efforts to persuade international banks and businesses to stop business with Iran -- that are weakening Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hold on power.
Saturday's resolution is intended to restrict Iran's ability to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and to participate in international negotiations. But it goes beyond Iran's nuclear program, targeting individuals and institutions that have been linked to Iran's widening military role in the Middle East.
For instance, the resolution imposes an asset freeze on Brig. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Quds Force, an elite component of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Quds Force oversees Iran's support for foreign Islamic revolutionary movements, including Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Palestinian Hamas organization and Iraqi Shiite Muslim militant groups.
In his speech to the council after the vote, Wolff said the new resolution was "in no way meant to punish the civilian population of Iran."
He and other council members also noted that the asset freeze in the new measure will not prohibit those targeted from paying off debts for services rendered before the resolution's passage.
The widening scope of the resolution suggested that the United States and Britain were seeking to use the council in a broader effort to contain Iran. But it triggered concern by some council members and observers that Western powers were trying to undermine the Iranian government.
"South African is concerned about where this resolution might go," said Jean P. Du Preez, a former South African diplomat who serves as director of the International Organizations and Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "Is this aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, or is this regime change in another form?"
Saturday's vote ended more than five weeks of intense negotiations on how to respond to Iran's defiance. The resolution's chief sponsors -- the United States, Britain, France and Germany-- secured the support of Iran's closest allies, China and Russia, only by dropping several of the toughest measures, including calls for a travel ban on select Iranian officials, a cutoff of billions of dollars in export credits for companies trading with Iran and a prohibition on arms imports by Iran.
"The impact is primarily political rather than practical," said Abbas Milani, the director of Stanford University's Iranian studies program. The financial and military restrictions are "rather limited and toothless," but they are having a profound psychological impact on investors and eroding Ahmadinejad's standing in Iran, he said.
Ahmadinejad had planned to address the Security Council before the vote, but he canceled his flight to New York Friday, claiming that U.S. officials issued visas for his air crew too late to make the trip.
"Due to the evident and deliberate failure of the American officials in issuing visa to Dr. Ahmadinejad's entourage and flight crew, the president could not attend the U.N. Security Council session,'' Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said. He accused Washington of "procrastination," the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
U.S. officials disputed that account, saying that they had provided the Iranian president and his delegation with a total of 75 visas in time for them to make the trip. They said Tehran had fabricated a crisis over the visas to spare their leader the embarrassment of seeing his country condemned for refusing to halt its uranium enrichment program.
"Any suggestion that visa issues are the cause of President Ahmadinejad's decision not to travel to New York is false," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said yesterday. "Rather, it would appear that he is unwilling to stand before the council and take the heat for his continued defiance of the international community."
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki attended the council meeting instead of Ahmadinejad.
The council's major powers had reached agreement on the resolution last week, but they faced resistance from three of the council's nonpermanent members: South Africa, Qatar and Indonesia. The United States and its European partners offered some final concessions to secure their support Friday, adding provisions that highlight the importance of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East and the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency known as the IAEA, in resolving the nuclear dispute with Iran.
The Security Council imposed limited sanctions on Iran three months ago and called on Tehran to suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.
Earlier this month, the IAEA suspended 22 technical aid projects in Iran under the sanctions. The action followed a report by IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei that Iran had continued its uranium enrichment program in defiance of the Security's Council's demand for a suspension.
ElBaradei said in the report that because Iran had failed to provide "the necessary level of transparency and cooperation," the IAEA could not verify that the Iranian program was solely for peaceful purposes, as Iran has repeatedly claimed.
Citing the discovery in 2003 that Iran had carried out a nuclear program secretly for nearly 20 years in breach of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, ElBaradei said in the report that "the IAEA's confidence about the nature of Iran's program has been shaken because of two decades of undeclared activities."