No Good Options On Iran?

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, May 15, 2005

Iran is the perfect storm acting as a nation: Oil, location and its advanced quest for nuclear weapons technology give Tehran the potential to drive the United Nations and the nonproliferation system that the world body oversees onto the rocks in the months ahead.

That matrix-shattering outcome is not sought by senior policymakers in the Bush administration. But it is an outcome that they can now imagine, and are prepared to accept, as I understand their public statements and private comments to diplomats, foreign officials and others.

It is hard to argue with the sentiment of a reform-or-be-damned approach to the world body, given the corruption and glaring failures highlighted by the United Nations' own inquiry and congressional investigations into the oil-for-food program in Iraq.

It is the logic that is hard to follow. The administration is poised to ask the Security Council to impose economic sanctions against another oil-producing Persian Gulf nation while the wreckage of the last attempt has not yet been cleared. Has the Security Council reformed enough to take this on again? Are Iran's ayatollahs that much more sensitive to world condemnation? Or have I missed something?

Let's keep that last question open while we look at the dilemma the administration confronts:

The core meaning of the oil-for-food scandal is not the headline-grabbing corruption of individuals but the less visible "corruption of the very integrity of the U.N. process," in the words of one U.S. policymaker. Saddam Hussein was using the oil kickbacks that he was allowed to build into the oil-for-food program to erode the U.N. sanctions and to buy support for lifting them entirely -- a goal he was advancing substantially before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Condoleezza Rice's State Department has maneuvered skillfully since February to make Iran, and not the United States, the center of attention and criticism for the deadlock in Tehran's negotiations with Britain, France and Germany over uranium enrichment. Rice agreed to the Europeans' request for public support and small but symbolic trade concessions for Iran.

This helped President Bush win unannounced commitments from the three European countries to join the United States in seeking Security Council sanctions if the negotiations fail, according to U.S. and diplomatic sources. The Europeans signaled that accord last week by warning Tehran it would face retaliation if it resumed processing uranium.

The administration thus stands closer to confronting the dangers of having its prayers on Iran answered. The United States has no commitment from Russia or China, which are increasingly economically tied to Iran, not to veto a sanctions resolution in the Security Council.

Oil revenue and oil supplies are potent weapons in current world market conditions and prices. What I may have missed is that the administration has concluded that in a globalized economy heavily dependent on oil, there are no good options on Iran. Its choice may be muddling through by trying sanctions one more time.

The bitter Iraqi experience suggests that the success of economic sanctions might be as disastrous as their failure. An oil oligarchy can ride out (indeed, flourish in) the imposed hardships while the nation's infrastructure and social cohesion are destroyed.

Oil is the root of enough evil to justify new monitoring and international controls on an industry that now presents special dangers to global stability and prosperity, as well as to the environment. The administration needs to place both its minimalist energy policy and its drive to isolate and contain Iran in a much broader context, such as the drastically revised Kyoto process that it has promised to sponsor.

This will require significantly more diplomacy, strategic planning and time before forcing a showdown -- prospects the administration should not dismiss. Buying another year's suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment program in return for procedural concessions on the negotiations is a worthy goal for the United States and its European partners to pursue.

Iran's history as a significant player in regional and world affairs, and its proximity to U.S. forces trying to establish order in Iraq and Afghanistan, make Tehran a more formidable problem for global stability than is North Korea. That isolated and doomed rogue regime -- which would accelerate its own demise by carrying out its threats -- can be contained regionally.

But Iran's challenge is to the global rules of the nuclear game as they have been applied for the past four decades under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The administration should move with all deliberate speed in sailing the Security Council into this storm.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company