The U.N. Security Council’s vote Monday to impose more sanctions on Iran will not solve the nuclear problem anytime soon even though it demonstrated international agreement that Iran has not been forthright about its weapons plans.
At best, the sanctions, the third set imposed by the Security Council in three years, will push the U.S. and Iran toward negotiations, according to several commentators. Time magazine’s Tony Karon quotes former U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, the Bush administration’s “point man” on Iran, as saying that the standoff between Iran and the U.S. and the West will have to be solved by the next president:
“‘I think this is going to be a drama that plays out well into 2009 and beyond,” Burns told the Council on Foreign Relations last week. He added, “There’s plenty of room for this type of diplomacy, both sanctions as well as the positive offers of negotiations. That will continue, I’m quite sure, into the next Administration.’ ”
Karon writes that “the sanctions agreed upon on Monday may really form part of a holding pattern, in which sanctions are maintained in support of Security Council demands, but not significantly escalated. After all, next January, a new U.S. Administration assumes office, and the following summer, Iranians vote in a presidential election in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is far from certain to be reelected. And there’s a greater likelihood that a fresh cast of characters in both Washington and Tehran might be better able to make headway in negotiating over a range of issues of tension between the two powers than are the current incumbents.”
A rundown of the bans
The Security Council voted 14-0 with one abstention to impose travel bans on Iranian officials involved in the nuclear program, to freeze assets of certain companies and to ban sale of “dual-use” items which have nuclear and other applications. The resolution calls on governments to withdraw financial backing from companies trading with Iran, to inspect cargo into and out of the country, and monitor activities of two Iranian banks.
Even Russia and China, which trade extensively with Iran and have been reluctant to pressure the country, voted for the sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program. The U.S. and allies insist the enrichment program is designed to develop nuclear weapons while Iran contends it is for peaceful energy purposes.
The sanctions vote was a far cry from the situation a few months ago, write Robin Wright and Colum Lynch in the Los Angeles Times: “Just five months after President Bush warned that Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons could lead to ‘World War III,’ the White House had to settle for a watered-down U.N. resolution that makes most trade and financial sanctions voluntary,” they report.
“U.S. diplomacy was undercut by China’s growing oil trade with Iran, Russia’s ties to Tehran’s nuclear energy program and skepticism among four developing countries on the council about the need for yet another U.N. resolution. But Washington’s own National Intelligence Estimate in December — which concluded with ‘high confidence’ that Iran had shelved its nuclear weapons program in 2003 — did more than anything else to undermine the prospects for a hard-hitting resolution, according to current and former U.S. officials.”
In a background piece just before the U.N. vote, William J. Broad and David Sanger explained in The New York Times that the Intelligence Estimate’s conclusion was based on weapons design, not uranium enrichment. “Based on fresh intelligence that Iran’s bomb design program was suspended in 2003, it said Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons, even though uranium enrichment continued.”
But “for years, Washington had based its assessment that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons largely on its steady work to enrich uranium, which could be used for bombs but which Iran says it wants to fuel nuclear power reactors,” The Times said. “Forcing Iran to give up enrichment became the goal.”
Despite the National Intelligence Estimate, questions about Iran’s nuclear intentions continued to be raised, particularly last month in Vienna where the U.N.’s chief nuclear inspector introduced new documents and a video that “disclosed many new details suggesting the depths of Iran’s past work on weapon design,” The Times said.
The Vienna meeting lent support to Monday’s Security Council vote.
Even with Monday’s successful vote, “U.S. policy toward Iran is stuck. It is more a holding game than a policy,” write William Luers, Thomas Pickering and James Walsh in the International Herald Tribune. “Continuing to try to sanction Iran has made life difficult for some Iranians but will not coerce Iran to change its commitment to a nuclear program.”
The three propose that “Iran’s efforts to produce enriched uranium and related nuclear activities be conducted on a multilateral basis, jointly managed and operated on Iranian soil by a consortium including Iran and other governments.” The system would be controlled by “a rigorous and broad monitoring regime over Iran’s nuclear program. … This approach would reduce the risk of proliferation and create the basis for a broader discussion of our serious disagreements and of our common interests.”
Charles Kupchan and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations suggest a different tact in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times: “While Washington continues to press for a stark policy of political isolation and military containment, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are overtly pursuing a new strategy of engagement. Even the Iraqi government, despite its ostensible alignment with the Bush administration, has opened its doors — hence President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s red carpet treatment in Baghdad. If U.S. policy toward Iran is to yield results, Washington must adjust its approach to the reality that its closest allies in the Middle East have effectively broken with U.S. strategy.
“After three decades of isolating Iran, it is time to acknowledge that economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure and military threats have failed to bring Tehran to heel. To be sure, Iran’s nuclear program, its support of extremist groups standing in the way of the peace process and its arming of Shiite militias in Iraq pose serious threats to the U.S. and its allies. However, containment has not worked, and the debacle in Iraq has made clear the dangers of regime change by force. The best means of addressing the Iranian threat are through patient diplomacy and regional integration along the lines envisioned by America’s Arab allies.”
These and other approaches probably will have to wait until regimes change in Washington and Tehran.
Doug Stone is director of college relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.