Tempting as it is, I shall avoid invoking my all time favorite lede in discussing the U.S. effort to get UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. That — my all time favorite lede — would be the observation by a certain 19th century German journalist that all the great events in history occur twice, first as tragedy and then as farce. But seeing as how we’re avoiding that reference, we’ll settle instead for the idea that the barking dog running down the road is unlikely to have planned for actually catching that car. And it appears that the Bush administration, similarly, appears not to have gamed the outcome of its effort to challenge Tehran’s nuclear program at the UN Security Council.
The U.S. certainly prevailed in last Saturday’s vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to refer Iran to the UN Security Council over non-disclosure of aspects of its nuclear program. It did so by
browbeating reluctant allies with all manner of threats and promises, resulting in the rather bizarre outcome in which the IAEA board finds Iran non-compliant and thereby liable for referral to the Security Council, but nonetheless avoided actually making the referral. For countries like India, it was simply a case of voting for a resolution that raised pressure on Tehran but at the same time gave it more time to be more forthcoming — India, after all, has massive economic ties, particularly a planned natural gas pipeline, that would make sanctions threaten India’s immediate interests a lot more than Iranian nukes would; at the same time, it has secured extensive U.S. cooperation for its own civilian nuclear energy program, and Washington had made clear that the price was New Delhi’s support on the IAEA vote. India is but one example of the states who voted with or didn’t block this resolution, but nonetheless have no interest in seeing Iran brought before the Security Council for sanctions, which is what Washington wants (or, at least, the part of Washington that doesn’t mind paying $100 a barrel for oil, which would surely result if Iran’s share of global output, close to 10 percent, is taken off world markets by sanctions). So India, like many of the EU countries, voted with the U.S. on Saturday, but with no intention of backing the U.S. in a bid to impose sanctions on Iran — indeed, they’re probably all pretty relieved that China’s veto power would almost certainly be invoked to stop any sanctions resolution. (Iran is fast emerging as China’s largest foreign oil supplier, and the Chinese are committing tens of billions of dollars in investment to Iran’s oil industry. For Beijing, even more than India, sanctions are a lot more threatening than Iranian nukes.)
Let’s make one thing clear: Unlike the bogus WMD case against Iraq, I do believe Iran is using the latitude permitted by the Non Proliferation Treaty to build most of the infrastructure for a bomb program under the aegis of its civilian nuclear energy program. This would give it the option, within about a decade, to simply withdraw from the NPT and move quickly to assemble a bomb. I don’t believe the final decision has yet been taken; instead I suspect the consensus among the leadership in Tehran is that they should build as much of the infrastructure as they can within the limits of the NPT, and that the question of whether to actually proceed to build a bomb will be answered later. (I also have little doubt, I’m afraid, that the eventual decision will be to build nuclear weapons.)
This is why the Europeans have joined the United States in seeking to persuade and pressure Iran to voluntarily desist from enrichment and reprocessing activities allowed for a civilian energy program under the NPT, in exchange for economic and technical incentives. Those talks have now broken down, Iran clearly emboldened by the U.S. failure to impose its will in Iraq, which has patently overstretched U.S. military resources and made clear that an occupation of Iran is simply militarily untenable — indeed, the likelihood is that Washington will require Tehran’s tacit support for any withdrawal strategy.
And the Europeans, partly out of their own concerns over Iranian nukes, more out of a desire to repair the transatlantic relationship, had agreed to back the U.S. on a push for Security Council referral if negotiations failed. But that’s as far as it goes. Once the matter gets to the Security Council (if, indeed, it gets there at all, which remains in doubt despite Saturday’s vote), U.S. Ambassador John Bolton will find precious little support for sanctions, let alone any tougher forms of action.
Oil self-interest creates a trump card, but even before that, the Iranians have played this well diplomatically. President Ahmedinajad’s rant about the U.S. forcing the world to accept a “nuclear apartheid” may have sounded like self-destructive rhetoric to some U.S. analysts, but he’s playing a sophisticated game. The Iranians know they’re using the rights accorded them by the NPT to pursue a goal that the NPT is specifically designed to preclude, i.e. nuclear weapons. So, what they’re doing in diplomatic forums is drawing attention to the idea of U.S. and EU hypocrisy: Just as Iran is using the NPT to pursue a goal quite opposite to that intended by the NPT, so are the U.S. and EU, my using the treaty to protect a nuclear-weapons monopoly. The premise of the treaty was not to entrench the nuclear-weapons status of the five nuclear-armed states that existed at the time it was adopted (1968), but to quote its preamble, “to achieve at the earliest possible date the cessation of the nuclear arms race and to undertake effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”
The nuclear-armed states looking to use the NPT to ensure that Iran doesn’t achieve that status (France, Britain and the U.S.) have no intention of moving to abandon their own nuclear weapons. That, ultimately, is where Iran is going to take this argument. Already, at the IAEA, a secondary battle is being waged to the same end, with Arab states promoting a resolution calling for a nuclear-free Middle East, a call that puts Israel in a bind. By underscoring the hypocrisy of its adversaries in protecting their own nuclear monopoly (and tolerating the nuclear status of their allies such as Israel), Iran is helping set the diplomatic stage in the long-run for the acquisition of a strategic nuclear capability.
But the more immediate problem facing the U.S. is that even many of those who voted with it in Vienna last week have no interest in seeing sanctions imposed on Iran, much less any more coercive forms of action. As Condoleeza Rice learned to her alarm during her European debut trip last February, public opinion in Europe has already accepted a nuclear-armed Iran as inevitable. Obviously they’d love to stop it, but it’s unlikely any of them will see as in their interests to allow the issue to be turned into a new Middle East confrontation.
And then, there’s plenty of room for maneuver by Iran because the issue on which they’re being cited is failure to disclose a host of activities in its program, rather than the activities themselves, most of which are permissible within the terms of the NPT. (The U.S. and EU are arguing, essentially, that Iran should be held to a higher standard than the NPT because of — valid — suspicions over how they’re trying to use it.)
Kofi Annan is said to have warned UN member states against bringing matters to the Security Council when there’s no consensus there over how to respond. Good advice, as the U.S. may discover if it actually manages to get the Iran issue onto the table in New York.