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US senators from across the political spectrum warned this week that the military option cannot be ruled out in order to block Iran's nuclear program. "That is the last option," said Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, on Sunday. "Everything else has to be exhausted. But to say under no circumstances would we exercise a military option, that would be crazy."
Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in another televised interview that there were elements of Iran's nuclear program that, if destroyed, "would dramatically delay its development." California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said Iran could "create devastation in the Middle East" and poses "the major test of the international community."
At their joint press conference last week US President George Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed of similar minds on Iran. "To us Germans, too, it is totally unacceptable what Iran has said recently, for example, as regards the questioning the right of existence of Israel, the statements that were made with relevance to the Holocaust," Merkel said. "We will certainly not be intimidated by a country such as Iran."
Intimidated, of course, is very good description both of Europe's approach toward Iran to date, and how Iran, judging by its increasingly brazen behavior, reads Europe.
Yesterday, representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, met in London to deal with the issue. Britain, France and Germany agreed that Iran must fully suspend its nuclear program. They also informed officials from Russia, China and the United States that they planned to call for an emergency board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in early February to discuss what action to take against Teheran.
This is a belated step in the right direction, but there will be no points for effort in this game. Iran knows that even a referral to the Security Council might not produce sanctions for years, and then the sanctions might be so weak that Iran is fully willing to pay the price.
Diplomacy only has a chance if quickly translated into sanctions, and then only if the sanctions are particularly draconian. For a sense of the possible scope, if not the warranted speed, the Libya precedent is worth examining.
In March 1992, acting on evidence implicating the Libyan government in the downing of an American and a French airliner, the UN Security Council imposed a global arms and air embargo, mandated a reduction of Libyan diplomats serving abroad, and set up a sanctions committee. In November 1993, the UN tightened these sanctions by freezing Libyan financial resources and banning the provision of oil refining and transportation equipment to Libya.
In April 1999, after Libya delivered two of its officials for trial, the sanctions were suspended. But the combination of these sanctions, the heavy damages Libya had to pay after the conviction of its officials, and the message sent by Saddam Hussein's fall and capture in Iraq, caused Libya to announce in 2004 that it was giving up its nuclear program and hand over tons of equipment for destruction.
In Iran's case, there is obviously no time for such a leisurely progression to give sanctions a chance to work. And in the case of Iraq, Western patience with sanctions ran out without Saddam's capitulation, leaving only the option of military action.
But Iran is not Libya, Iraq, or North Korea. It does not consider itself a pariah state, nor is it as self-isolated from the world. Though an oil exporter, Iran must import 40 percent of its refined fuel from abroad. Cutting off diplomatic ties, scientific exchanges, and the right to participate in sports events, such as the 2006 World Cup, in addition to the menu of sanctions that were imposed on Libya, would deal a devastating blow to the legitimacy of the Iranian regime.
What matters most now is speed and seriousness. Weak, lowest common denominator sanctions could be worse than nothing. If China or Russia are unwilling to allow the Security Council to impose a "Libya-plus" sanctions package, the US, UK, France and Germany should impose such sanctions as a group, and encourage all free nations to join them.
Iran is betting, even though it much weaker than the democracies it confronts, that the West will not have the will to stand up to its threats. The UN may continue fail its own Charter by proving an obstacle to, rather than a vehicle for, such collective action.
But this is not a reason for free nations to allow a single rogue state to usher in a future of increasing terrorism and nuclear blackmail... at best.