A Faltering Coalition

Sunday, April 2, 2006

LAST WEEK'S statement by the United Nations Security Council on Iran's nuclear program offered another example of the weakness of multilateral diplomacy against this threat. It took more than three weeks of concentrated effort by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior officials to produce a nonbinding declaration that omits any hint of more serious action. Its issuance was accompanied by public statements from the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers and the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency explicitly opposing sanctions. Tehran was given 30 days to respond, or 29 more than it needed: It rejected the council's request for a suspension of uranium enrichment within hours. The bottom line is that another month will pass during which Iran will continue to build a bombmaking capacity without suffering any serious pressure from the outside world.

The Bush administration's diplomatic strategy on Iran has had the virtue, at least, of improving relations with key European allies such as Germany and France and of establishing a consensus against an Iranian bomb including Russia and China. But so far the Iranian government doesn't appear greatly troubled by the meetings of the Security Council's permanent five members and Germany, much less by the issuance of watered-down statements. If diplomacy is going to be effective, considerably greater pressure will have to be placed on a regime that has been riding a wave of radicalism.

Greater pressure through the Security Council will require, first of all, greater cooperation from Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin so far has been the biggest winner in the diplomatic maneuvering. The Bush administration's hope that Mr. Putin will help explains why it has failed to react to Russian provocations in much of the rest of the world. So the first step toward a more effective Iran policy is to call Mr. Putin's bluff. If he does not share the interest of the other Group of Eight nations in punishing the Iranian leadership for its pursuit of nuclear weapons, then there should be no further reason to treat him as an ally. He should be asked for a decision before he hosts the G8 summit in St. Petersburg this summer.

If Mr. Putin decides not to cooperate with the West, then the United States can still forge a coalition against Iran outside the Security Council. European governments that want to prevent an Iranian bomb -- and want to create an alternative to military action by the United States or Israel -- could be persuaded to agree on sanctions that target Iranian leaders and their assets, exports of materials that could be used in nuclear facilities, or new investment in Iran's oil industry. Even such a limited sanctions regime would be preferable to endless, empty discussions at the Security Council or the International Atomic Energy Agency.

IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei suggests that negotiations, rather than sanctions, are the right approach to Iran; no doubt he agrees with those in Washington who suggest that the Bush administration open direct talks with the Iranian regime. It's true that a negotiated end to Iran's bomb ambitions would eventually require U.S. involvement. But U.S.-Iranian negotiations now, while satisfying a longstanding ambition of the mullahs, would end the possibility of sanctions by other countries and bolster a regime that calls openly for the eradication of Israel. Two years of negotiations by European governments with Iran, backed by the United States, led only to more uranium enrichment. The objective now must be to induce Iran to stop that activity -- not to talk more about it.

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