(photo credit: AP [file])
The sanctions passed in the UN Security Council on Saturday constitute yet another line in the sand, arguably the most significant one yet, concerning international opposition to Iran's nuclear program. But lines alone will not stop Iran. The question is whether the West will prove that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was right to dismiss the resolution as a meaningless "scrap of paper."
The US and Europe allowed Russia to strike out broad swaths of the proposed resolution, taking a weak resolution and making it into a mockery of international action. The resolution exempts a nuclear reactor project supported by Russia, even though that reactor could eventually supply plutonium for nuclear weapons. Even a travel ban for high Iranian officials was dropped, at Russian insistence.
There are two silver linings, however, to this shameful result. The first is that the resolution imposes Chapter 7 sanctions, thereby crossing an important threshold that demonstrates, in theory, that the UN will employ its most binding tools to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. Now that Chapter 7 has been invoked and partially deployed, the sanctions effort need only be ramped up in degree, less so in kind.
Second, like the much ballyhooed and dead-on-arrival Baker-Hamilton report, the strategy of relying completely on Security Council action has fallen so short of producing effective action that it has discredited itself, thereby opening opportunities to explore alternative policy avenues.
Europe has pretended that "multilateral action" is synonymous with the UN Security Council, as if there is no other way for threatened nations to exercise their right of collective self-defense. Now that international body has shown both the unacceptability of Iran developing nuclear weapons and its own inability to take effective measures.
Given that this lamentable result came four months after the UN's own deadline had passed on August 21 (and 17 months after Iran officially resumed uranium enrichment), the supposed two-month trigger for further "appropriate measures" cannot be taken seriously. Iran rejected the current resolution within minutes. What reason is there to believe that Russia will support much tougher sanctions two months from now?
There is no time to spare for such a leisurely process, as every day Iran moves ahead in perfecting its indigenous capability to produce nuclear fuel. The urgent necessity is for the US and Europe to together impose all of the sanctions that were originally contemplated - before the resolution was gutted by Russia - and then some.
By acting as Iran's agent in the Security Council, Russia is endangering itself, the United States, Israel, and international peace and security. Though there is some truth to the US State Department's claim that Iran has been humiliated by the unanimous vote in the Security Council, the greater humiliation has been of the US by Russia, which even garnered US support for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization as part of the bargain.
Now that lowest-common-denominator diplomacy has been discredited, the alternative is for the US to step forward and lead. This means challenging Europe to impose much tougher sanctions now with the US, and acting on official hints that the UN is not the only possible forum in which the West can take concrete steps to defend itself.
Ultimately, if the West stays within the limits of a Russian veto, Iran will obtain nuclear weapons. So far, the US has refrained from accusing Russia of striving to produce such an outcome, so Russia is paying no price for its behavior. In fact, Moscow has been rewarded - not only by moving toward WTO membership, but also by showing the power of its veto in shaping world events.
The alternative is for Russia to be told that if it exercises its veto irresponsibly, the US and Europe will act outside of the Security Council, thereby rendering that body and Russia's veto less, not more, relevant.
The purpose of multilateralism, as embodied by the UN Charter, should be to act together to defend against common threats to international peace and security, not to commit joint suicide. Europe will not, by itself, stand up for these principles. The United States, then, must start leading the way, or watch as the future of the world is defined by rogue states, terrorist organizations and their effective allies in Moscow and Beijing.