Iran Nuclear 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
"The US and its European allies remained at odds with Russia and China over Iran... as Britain proposed new talks and sanctions backed by force if necessary," the Associated Press reported on Tuesday. Senior diplomats from six key nations "could not overcome Russian and Chinese opposition to tough action in the Security Council."
The US has urged Europe for years to join in a tougher approach toward Iran, which would begin by referring Iran to the UN Security Council. The Security Council is indeed the natural address for imposing binding, multilateral sanctions on an aggressor nation that threatens international security. This is the chief purpose of the United Nations, according to its charter, and over a decade after the end of the Cold War it is reasonable to sincerely attempt to employ the UN as it was meant to operate.
Now that Europe seems finally to be on board with the US, however, the obvious danger was that two other nations with veto power in the Security Council, Russia and China, would render the new transatlantic consensus meaningless.
Russia and China cannot, of course, be assumed to be have Western interests in mind or to act as responsible members of the community of nations. Russia has been Iran's chief supplier of nuclear technology. China is a major Iranian trading partner. But most importantly, Russia (increasingly) and China are led by dictatorial regimes that see themselves in competition with Western power, and as potentially threatened by Western demands regarding democracy and human rights.
It is often asked why Russia - with its own war against Muslims in Chechnya raging and its proximity to Iran - does not seem inordinately concerned about an Iranian bomb, and has recently broken ranks with the Quartet by inviting Hamas for talks. Surely, the Russians need no lectures about the dangers from militant Islamists, the thinking goes.
There is no point, however, in second-guessing Russia's interpretation of its own interests. The question is whether the West will hold itself hostage to the whims of nations whose policies and agendas bear little relationship to its own security requirements.
There is another way.
Russia and China should be told by the US and Europe that, while working through the Security Council is clearly the first and most appropriate course of action, the threat from Iran requires concerted diplomatic, economic and perhaps military measures regardless. If Moscow and Beijing joined in, sanctions would be that much more effective, but it is possible that draconian measures by Washington, London, Paris and Berlin and many other like minded capitals would be sufficient to raise the price of Teheran's nuclear project so high that it would be abandoned.
Sanctions remain a long-shot effort to change Iran's course. Much of the international community, it seems, either quietly assumes that Iran will obtain the bomb, or that military measures will be necessary. We've become used to the sanctions option being either too little or too late.
What is clear is that lowest common denominator sanctions of the sort Russia and China might accept will be insufficient - unless, perhaps, these countries face a choice of joining in an international effort or being bypassed entirely.
The standard must be what the situation demands, not what Russia and China will agree to. Speed and toughness, which are critical to induce Iran to back down, should not be sacrificed to obtain an unrealistic degree of international consensus. If the US and Europe have linked all diplomatic, trade and cultural ties with Iran to the abandonment of terrorism and its nuclear program, it will do Iran little good that Russia and China have not.
Russia and China, on the other hand, have a lot to lose if the US and Europe make a habit of bypassing the UN Security Council. It is only in that body that they wield a veto that gives them power disproportionate to their economic and diplomatic weight in the world. But if there is no Western threat to bypass the UN, either through NATO or an ad hoc "coalition of the willing," Russia and China will have little incentive to go along.