Wall Street Journal: A piece of paper can’t stop a bomb, and a United Nations resolution that hasn’t even been passed yet certainly can’t do the trick. Yet the announcement this week that the U.S. and the other permanent powers on the U.N. Security Council have agreed on a proposed new set of sanctions on Iran represents a significant moment in the tangled, long-running drama over Iran’s nuclear program.
The Wall Street Journal
By GERALD F. SEIB
A piece of paper can’t stop a bomb, and a United Nations resolution that hasn’t even been passed yet certainly can’t do the trick.
Yet the announcement this week that the U.S. and the other permanent powers on the U.N. Security Council have agreed on a proposed new set of sanctions on Iran represents a significant moment in the tangled, long-running drama over Iran’s nuclear program.
No, the resolution’s provisions don’t amount to the “crippling sanctions” U.S. officials have promised and Israeli officials have urged to force Tehran to halt its nuclear program before it’s capable of producing weapons—which, of course, Iran insists it isn’t trying to develop. And no, the resolution isn’t perfect; it includes only passing references to, and no clear restrictions on, Iran’s energy sector or central bank.
Still, the announcement matters. Most importantly, it’s a strong sign that Iran can’t count on China and Russia to bail it out, as Iran had always hoped.
Just a day before the U.S. and the other permanent members of the Security Council—Russia, China, France and Great Britain—said they had agreed to a draft sanctions resolution, Iran played its trump card, the one designed to peel China and Russia away from sanctions.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, alongside his new pals, the leaders of Brazil and Turkey, announced that Iran would, sort of and belatedly, accept an agreement reached with the big powers in October to ship a big chunk of its low-enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment into benign fuel for a research reactor. That deal was designed to prevent the uranium from being turned into nuclear-weapons material.
“You see,” Iran was saying to China and Russia, “we’re doing what you asked us to do! Let’s forgive and forget our seven-month delay in responding.” But the Iran/Brazil/Turkey gambit came with a problem and a giant loophole.
The problem: Iran proposed shipping its uranium to Turkey, not to Russia or France as originally agreed, putting the powerful Security Council on the sidelines. More importantly, Iran explicitly said that, while it would ship some of its uranium abroad for further enrichment, it intended to keep enriching the remainder to higher levels on its own.
In other words, the deal was: You enrich some of our uranium to higher levels, while we do the same with the uranium we keep. Not a great deal. Russia and China didn’t bite. That’s not to say they won’t buy the Iranian gambit in coming days or weeks—nobody can be sure they won’t blink on sanctions down the line— but so far they are sticking with the resolution.
Iran has gained Brazil and Turkey as partners, but may have lost Russia and China, at least to some extent. That suggests President Barack Obama’s hours of chats with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and patient courting of China’s Hu Jintao have paid some dividends.
There are four other reasons the resolution matters:
• The alternative was much worse. Failure to agree on a sanctions resolution would have suggested that China and Russia were acquiescing to Iran’s nuclear plans, and that the West was powerless to change that.
• The sanctions, if enacted, might actually slow down the Iranians. By authorizing economic penalties on companies that could be helping Iran acquire nuclear equipment and missiles, and calling for inspections of ships that might be carrying that equipment, and explicitly naming the shipping line that Iran appears to have been using for such trafficking, the sanctions could make it harder for Iran to stay on its nuclear track. Similar provisions have had some impact on North Korea.
“In essence, the real value of sanctions is to slow Tehran down, not change its mind,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
• A U.N. resolution would open the door for tougher actions. The key clause in the sanctions draft is one that calls on countries to block access to financing for firms or individuals engaged in business that “could contribute to Iran’s proliferation.” That clears the way for the U.S. and the European Union to go further on their own in imposing financial restrictions, while saying they have the world’s blessing.
• This resolution may represent the best chance to compel Iran into meaningful international negotiations before it becomes nuclear-weapons capable. If there is a possibility Iran will decide that pursuing a program that looks suspiciously like a nuclear-arms quest isn’t worth the international and economic cost, it has to first be convinced of those costs, and then talk with the world about its alternatives.
The other option the U.S. and its allies could start considering is more overt support for the movement opposing Iran’s government from within. After all, the real threat isn’t so much from the prospect of nuclear arms, but from the Iranian regime that would have them.