By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; 6:12 PM
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- The 12 to 2 vote in the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to impose a modest tightening of sanctions on Iran poses a conundrum: How could an administration that first tried reaching out to Iran and then spent months working with its allies end up with less international unity than when George W. Bush was president?
Bush refused to engage with Iran, his administration often was perceived as acting unilaterally in international affairs, and one of his U.N. ambassadors was John R. Bolton, who once famously said he wanted to eliminate 10 stories of the U.N. headquarters. But not a single Security Council resolution on Iran that passed on Bush's watch contained a dissenting vote.
By contrast, President Obama had argued that engagement from the start would persuade Iran to negotiate seriously and if that did not happen, would demonstrate that Tehran was the problem, not Washington. Yet Turkey, a NATO ally, and Brazil, a major regional power, voted against Wednesday's resolution. Lebanon, a beneficiary of U.S. aid, abstained.
In part, the answer is that times have changed. Turkey and Brazil have had their own diplomatic initiatives with Iran in recent months. In addition, the sanctions regime that the United States promoted is more aggressive than past measures, including such elements as a conventional arms sales ban, a ban on certain nuclear and missile investments abroad and measures that could thwart Iranians' banking and shipping activities and hinder the growing role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in proliferation activities.
Moreover, officials note, Brazil and Turkey will be required to abide by these sanctions, despite their no votes, so Iran will face international pressure.
U.S. officials also say that Bush's resolutions failed to halt Iran's drive toward a nuclear weapon, and that this resolution at least holds the potential to put new pressure on Tehran. The administration's diplomatic engagement, they add, leaves open the possibility of talks to resolve the dispute -- while Bush's failure to engage was a dead end. U.S. officials also say it is a significant achievement to win over Russia and China, which had been skeptical of new sanctions when Obama took office. Also noteworthy was the decision of Lebanon, an ally of Iran, to abstain rather than vote outright against the sanctions.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, traveling in Latin America, told reporters here that the administration's efforts at engagement were responsible for the positive vote.
"When we started this effort, there was no appetite in the international community for further pressure in the form of sanctions on Iran," she said. The outreach effort was "politically difficult" but helped to demonstrate that the United States was serious about diplomacy, she said, persuading Russia and China to join the sanctions drive.
Clinton said the new sanctions will make it easier to "slow down and interfere" with Iran's nuclear program in the meantime, since the "ultimate goal" is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. She described the administration as "open to effective diplomacy" that could involve adding countries such as Brazil and Turkey to the negotiating table.
The administration's critics say the uncertain result in the Security Council vote stems from U.S. weakness in international diplomacy, while its defenders say Obama inherited a weak hand from Bush.
"It is ironic that Bush had a far better record at the U.N. than Obama, as there was a unanimous UNSC vote under Bush, and Obama has lost it," said Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under Bush. He said the reason is not that the Iranians' behavior has improved, because "the clock keeps ticking, and Iran gets closer and closer to a bomb." The reason, Abrams said, "is simply that American weakness has created a vacuum, and other states are trying to step into it."
Bolton argues that the administration's willingness to operate within the U.N. system left it at a negotiating disadvantage. "Everyone believes the Obama administration is joined at the hip to the council, which is a position of negotiating weakness," he said. "Weakness produces today's result."
But Martin Indyk, vice president for foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said that the no votes were "a product of the shifting templates in international affairs that is in part a result of Bush's policies that squandered American influence when it was at its height, allowing for regional powers to emerge with greater ambitions and independence."
Indyk said that the fact that Russia and China -- two of the five permanent Security Council members with veto power -- have yet again joined in new sanctions "should serve to underscore the Obama administration's considerable achievement in maintaining P5 consensus in a new era in which the United States can no longer dictate outcomes."
Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that "the sanctions vote serves notice that the process of building a case against Iran in the international community is continuing." He noted that nonaligned nations refused to back Iran at a recent review conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that Brazil's and Turkey's "no" votes Wednesday were widely anticipated.
"All these developments seem to indicate right now that the NAM group of countries is not a bloc which Iran can count on for support at crucial decision making moments," Hibbs said.
"Clearly the world is not unified in opposing Iran's nuclear posture," said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "But it won't hide the fact that Iran's diplomacy with Brazil and Turkey wasn't able to avoid the new Security Council sanctions or to break China and Russia away from the U.S.-led posse."
Nevertheless, it took the administration 16 months to reach this point, during which time Iran added to its stockpile of enriched uranium and even began to enrich at higher levels. In the meantime, Obama wrote two letters to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and tried hard to win Tehran's agreement on a confidence-building measure. The administration also exposed the existence of a secret Iranian facility near the city of Qom, which it said demonstrated anew how Iran was deceiving the world about its nuclear ambitions.
None of that seemed to matter to the dissenters at the council. Turkey and Brazil, in fact, took the administration's confidence-building measure -- a swap of nuclear material for an Iranian medical research reactor -- and revived it last month over U.S. objections. So in this case, one of the administration's efforts at engagement may have backfired. Administration officials, however, say such messy outcomes are sometimes the consequence of diplomatic ingenuity.
The administration might have won the same result -- or even better -- if it had moved for new sanctions last year. Brazil and Lebanon are new members on the council this year. Brazil replaced Costa Rica, which is very amenable to American persuasion. Lebanon replaced Libya, which had actually supported a sanctions resolution on Iran in 2008. Lebanon's government includes members of Hezbollah, which is closely linked to Iran, and might have been expected to also vote "no," though it may have been swayed by a phone call from Clinton to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on Wednesday morning.
Administration officials insist the U.N. vote represents just the first stage of a widening web of sanctions that will be imposed by the European Union and others. But unless China seriously joins the effort, that could mean that the United States and its allies are just opening up Iran to extensive Chinese investment.
Moreover, the sanctions are simply intended to bring Iran back to the bargaining table. Iran for years has shrugged off all pressure to negotiate on its nuclear program. The "no" votes cast by Turkey and Brazil might embolden Tehran to keep standing firm.