The Results of Diplomacy

Thursday, March 29, 2007

IRAN'S SEIZURE of 15 British sailors and marines on the day before the U.N. Security Council approved another resolution imposing sanctions on Tehran for its nuclear program may have been a coincidence. But the seizure illustrated a stubborn reality about the diplomatic campaign the Bush administration embraced two years ago: While successful on its own terms, the campaign has yet to produce any significant change in Iranian behavior.

Administration officials were encouraged by signs of dissension in the Iranian leadership after the first of two unanimous sanctions resolutions passed the Security Council in late December. Before the second resolution was introduced, there were talks between Iranian and European officials about ways to renew negotiations. Yet the Iranian work on uranium enrichment has continued; there are signs the regime is racing to complete an industrial installation with thousands of centrifuges that it can present to the world as an accomplished fact.

Now Iran is parading captured British sailors before cameras and using their purported confessions of trespassing in Iranian waters as propaganda in a way that suggests an eagerness to escalate rather than defuse confrontation with the West. Yesterday, Britain offered evidence that its service members were captured in international waters and rightly called their treatment "completely unacceptable." Though Iran's foreign minister said a female sailor would be released "very soon," the television broadcast suggested the prisoners had been coerced.

It's widely believed that power in Iran is divided among competing factions, and it could be that hard-liners are seeking to preempt any steps by the regime to comply with the Security Council. It's impossible to predict what might come out of Tehran before the next U.N. deadline in late May. Yet what has happened so far is sobering.

Bush administration officials have been congratulating themselves on the relative speed and deftness with which the latest sanctions resolution was pushed through the Security Council. They are right, in a way: The diplomatic campaign against Iran has been pretty successful by the usual diplomatic measures. Not only has the United States worked relatively smoothly with European partners with which it differed bitterly over Iraq, but it has also been effective lately in winning support from Russia, China and nonaligned states such as South Africa.

Critics who lambasted the administration's unilateral campaign against an "axis of evil" a few years ago ought to be applauding the return to conventional diplomacy. We, too, think it's worth pursuing, especially when combined with steps short of a military attack to push back against Iranian aggression in the region. Still, two years after President Bush embraced the effort, it has to be noted: The diplomatic strategy so far has been no more successful than the previous "regime change" policy in stopping Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon.


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