'Nyet' on Iran

Saturday, December 23, 2006

THE U.N. Security Council took up the Iranian nuclear program this year to pressure Tehran to suspend its work on enriching uranium. But in the past few months, something entirely different has happened. While Iranian enrichment has continued with impunity, the Security Council's deliberations have been hijacked by the Russian government of Vladimir Putin, which is using them to protect its economic interests and portray itself as a global power capable of countering the United States.

The Security Council ordered Iran last summer to stop enrichment work by Aug. 30 and threatened sanctions if it did not. Tehran defied the binding resolution, and its hard-line president boasted that the West would be unable to impose significant penalties. Russia has proved him right: As of yesterday, it was still holding up a vote on a Security Council resolution, even though it had already succeeded in stripping the measure of its teeth.

The Bush administration, which has been relying almost entirely on multilateral diplomacy to prevent a nuclear Iran, originally proposed a set of modest sanctions, including a travel ban on senior officials, a block on exports to Iran of nuclear and missile components, and a freeze on the foreign assets of companies involved in nuclear and missile production. The idea was to escalate to tougher measures if Iran did not respond.

Instead, the administration has spent nearly four months seeking Russian consent for the initial measure, yielding again and again to Moscow's intransigence. First, a large nuclear reactor being built for Iran by Russia was exempted from a proposed ban on nuclear imports, even though Tehran could someday use the facility to acquire plutonium for weapons. Next, European governments sponsoring the resolution were forced to drop the proposed travel ban -- the only measure left that might have caused the mullahs some pain. Meanwhile, the administration agreed to support membership in the World Trade Organization for Russia, a concession Moscow made clear was necessary to obtain its vote.

Having surrendered on almost every point, European ambassadors announced that the Security Council would vote yesterday. But Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he still wasn't ready. Some reports said he was seeking to water down the proposed freeze on foreign assets of companies directly connected to the nuclear program. Or maybe he was just demonstrating -- again -- that Russia can and will hold the Security Council hostage.

The result of this cynical policy is that any U.N. resolution against Iran will be a pyrrhic victory for the United States. The message to Tehran is not that it faces isolation or economic ruin if it fails to respect the Security Council's order; it is that it need not fear sanctions. Hard-liners in Tehran who have been saying this all along, such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be vindicated.

Russia will look like a world power; Mr. Putin will have more reason to strut. And the Bush administration, which has not dared even to complain in public about Russia's obstructionism, will look foolish. In fact, Mr. Bush has allowed a vital U.S. interest to be undermined by a government and a leader he should have ceased to coddle long ago.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company