On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council issued a toothless statement urging Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program and threatening to take up the issue again in 30 days, after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) delivers a report on Iran’s compliance. The Council’s statement is a modest step forward in confronting Iran’s ominous nuclear activities, but it is not legally binding, does little to pressure to Iran, and is unlikely to deflect Iran from its chosen course. With Russia and China blocking any serious UN response to Iran’s nuclear activities, the U.S. must take what it can get at the Security Council while making contingency plans to prepare a “coalition of the willing” to work outside of the UN, diplomatically and, if necessary, militarily.
The mild UN statement, which took three weeks to hammer out, is disappointing and a sign that the UN diplomatic route will be a hard, slow slog. What emerged was a “presidential statement”: a weak, non-binding document that expressed the lowest-common-denominator consensus of the 15 Security Council members. Russia and China worked hard to delay and dilute any meaningful action. They sought to put the diplomatic ball back in the court of the IAEA, which has no enforcement powers, even though Iran has misled the IAEA for more than 18 years and has failed to comply with many IAEA resolutions.
The original draft statement, proposed by the United States, Britain, and France, cited Iran’s nuclear activities as a “threat to international peace and security.” Under the UN Charter, such threats may be countered with economic sanctions or military force under the aegis of the UN. The original draft also called for the Security Council to meet and consider further action in 14 days. This deadline has been pushed back to 30 days, and it remains unclear what will happen then.
John Bolton, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, had argued forcefully for stronger action and was critical of Russian and Chinese foot-dragging. Still, he said of the statement, “The message is clear nonetheless that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is unacceptable.” Bolton warned Iran, “We are prepared to be back on the 31st day, given the Iranian record to date of consistently flouting the International Atomic Energy Agency, attempting to obstruct what they have done, and continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.”
Iran, which resumed uranium enrichment activities last month after a two-year suspension, shrugged off the Security Council statement. “Pressure and threats do not work for Iran” proclaimed Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Javad Zarif. “Iran is a country that is allergic to pressure and threats and intimidation.”
Yesterday, the foreign ministers and senior diplomats of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, along with German officials, met in Berlin to discuss the next steps in the long-brewing crisis with Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put a positive spin on the meeting: “This is a strong signal to Iran that negotiation, not confrontation, should be their course.” Rice hinted that UN sanctions would be forthcoming. But after the meeting, Russian and Chinese diplomats went out of their way to express opposition to future sanctions. And Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief representative to the IAEA, said that Iran’s position was unchanged: “This enrichment matter is not reversible.”
After the issue returns to the Security Council from the IAEA, the Security Council will address Iran’s nuclear program again, absent a complete reversal of Iran’s position. Given Russia and China’s efforts to obstruct Security Council action, diplomatic progress through the UN will be slow and ineffective. Before grappling with sanctions, the Security Council probably will pass a resolution demanding cessation of Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts and giving Tehran additional time to reconsider its position.
Slowly ratcheting up international pressure on Iran is likely to produce too little too late. Russia and China maintain extensive economic ties with Iran, sell it billions of dollars worth of military weapons, and consider it a strategic ally. They are likely to continue to protect Iran from strong UN sanctions. And they will continue to buy Iran time by slowing the pace of diplomacy on the Security Council to that of a leisurely diplomatic waltz.
While it seeks sanctions from the Security Council, the United States must also prepare to mobilize a “coalition of the willing” to impose sanctions outside the UN framework or, if it proves necessary, to use military force. So long as Russia and China continue to block strong action, the Security Council will fail to defeat the threat of a nuclear Iran, just as it failed to defeat the threats posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.