A Boost for Diplomacy

Friday, October 26, 2007

THE BROAD package of sanctions against Iran announced yesterday by the Bush administration offers a badly needed boost to the campaign to stop Tehran's nuclear program by nonmilitary means. For more than two years, the administration has supported negotiations by European governments, U.N. Security Council resolutions and multilateral sanctions aimed at stopping Iran's apparent drive for a nuclear bomb. It has also offered broad bilateral negotiations in exchange for a freeze, an offer repeated yesterday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Those efforts so far have failed. Iran has pressed ahead with the construction of a large facility to enrich uranium, dismissed three U.N. resolutions and shrugged off the relatively weak sanctions. It has meanwhile accelerated its support for terrorist groups in the Middle East and used proxies to wage war against U.S. troops in Iraq.

Faced with this defiance, the international coalition is getting weaker rather than stronger. U.S. diplomats so far have been unable to win support for a third round of U.N. sanctions, which should have come six months ago. Russia and China have been stepping up their trade with Iran. A French initiative for the European Union to apply new sanctions has been blocked by Germany. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is supposed to implement U.N. decisions, has launched a separate strategy aimed at allowing Iranian enrichment and preventing further sanctions.

The U.S. steps announced yesterday, which were directed at three state-owned banks, the Revolutionary Guard and its al-Quds Force, and a branch of the defense ministry concerned with weapons programs, do not directly designate any of those entities as a terrorist organization, as some in the administration and many in Congress had advocated. But they are designed to curtail Iranian access to the international banking system and deter non-American companies from doing business with Iran. If the sanctions are as successful as the financial crackdown on North Korea, they could have the same result: forcing Iran to end its defiance of the Security Council and begin serious negotiations to stop its bomb program. Though administration officials describe the measures as the toughest taken against Tehran in 30 years, they are restrained when set against the Revolutionary Guard's escalating campaign to kill Americans in Iraq by supplying sophisticated bombs, rockets and training to allied Shiite militias.

If this diplomatic offensive fails, President Bush or his successor is likely to face a choice between accepting Iran's acquisition of the means to build nuclear weapons and ordering military strikes to destroy its facilities. That's why it is senseless and irresponsible for those who say they oppose military action -- including a couple of the second-tier Democratic presidential candidates -- to portray the sanctions initiative as a buildup to war by Mr. Bush. We've seen no evidence that the president has decided on war, and it's clear that many senior administration officials understand the package as the best way to avoid military action. It is not they but those who oppose tougher sanctions who make war with Iran more likely.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company