Alliance Without Muscle

Sunday, February 5, 2006

THE GOOD NEWS in the vote by the International Atomic Energy Agency to report Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council is that the United States and its allies have managed to broaden the international coalition that seeks to prevent Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons. A year ago the Bush administration was nearly alone in its effort to bring Iran before the Security Council; now it is allied not only with the major European powers but with Russia and China, which agreed to support the referral in an unprecedented big-power strategy meeting in London on Monday. By the time the IAEA board voted yesterday, the allies had persuaded 27 of its 35 members, while only three voted no; at least for a day, the Iranian government was all but isolated.

The coalition-building nevertheless has had a clear cost: The action taken is slow and weak. To win support, the United States had to agree that the Security Council wouldn't discuss Iran before March. Even then, as Greg Schulte, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, put it, "we foresee a graduated approach to bring additional pressure on the leadership in Tehran to achieve a negotiated settlement." That means the Security Council won't do more than issue statements, at least at first. Any action with teeth, such as sanctions, will require more help from Russia and China than either appears likely to agree to.

Iran, meanwhile, shows little interest in the negotiated settlement that is the announced goal of all this diplomacy. After pretending to be studying a Russian proposal to enrich Iranian uranium in the days before the IAEA meeting, Tehran now says it won't consider it further. It also threatens to stop "voluntary" cooperation with enhanced IAEA inspections and to resume full-scale work on enrichment. Rather than take advantage of the month or more of additional time allotted by the IAEA for talk, the Iranian government may choose to escalate what has been a simmering standoff into a crisis.

It's possible the mullahs are merely seeking to bluff Russia and the West into a better offer before settling down to make a deal. It's at least as likely, though, that the regime calculates that the United States, bogged down in Iraq, is unwilling or unable to stop a sprint for weapons. U.S. allies won't support military action and might not even back sanctions; even if they do, Iran has the benefit of its oil and the ability to disrupt international markets by withholding it. Unless and until it sees evidence that the Security Council or some other ad hoc alliance is prepared to take action that could do serious harm to the Iranian economy or the regime's security, the Iranian leadership is likely to press ahead with steps to build weapons. For the Bush administration, the question becomes whether a deterrent of sufficient strength and credibility can be mustered to prompt Iranian second thoughts -- with or without a global alliance.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company