Speed up on Iran

Three basic steps are expected: stipulating requirements, determining compliance, and imposing sanctions.

iran protest 88 (photo credit: )
iran protest 88
(photo credit: )
The International Atomic Energy Agency's expected decision to refer Iran to the UN Security Council could be a ray of light in an otherwise dark saga whose potentially calamitous conclusion can hardly be exaggerated. The question is whether the Security Council, given European reluctance and Russian and Chinese obstruction, can move hard and fast enough to stave off the need for military action. In order to obtain Russian and Chinese support, the US agreed that the IAEA's "reporting" of Iran to the Security Council would be delayed until next month, when its current rotating chairman, John Bolton of the US, steps down. This month, there will likely be a last-ditch effort to obtain Iranian agreement to Russia's proposal that Iran produce and ship a nuclear fuel precursor to be enriched in Russia and returned to Iran, ostensibly to produce nuclear power. Given the US and European support for the seriously flawed Russian proposal, the only barrier to its adoption has been its rejection by Iran. As nuclear proliferation expert Gary Milhollin points out in The New York Times, "The [Russian] deal covers only the commercial-scale enrichment program Iran has planned for its plant at Natanz. But Iran also has a string of shops for manufacturing centrifuges - which can be used to enrich uranium to weapon grade - a large inventory of centrifuge parts, a stockpile of uranium gas needed to feed the centrifuges (plus a factory to produce more), and a pilot-scale enrichment plant under construction." The Russian plan represents the worst of both worlds: It will not block Iran's nuclear ambitions, but it will take the wind out non-military efforts to solve the problem. Still, there is a fair chance that the Russian deal will continue to be blocked by Iranian objections, so that Security Council action will begin in March. But what will this "action" consist of? Three basic steps are expected: stipulating requirements, determining compliance, and imposing sanctions. Even if Europe's position has moved and stays close to that of the US, each step is fraught with opportunities for Russia and China to water down, delay and object. Will there be an attempt to set the bar so low that Iran can claim to have complied? Will the pattern of the IAEA's refusal to fully blow the whistle on Iran continue with respect to Security Council's new/old requirements? After interminable delays, will the sanctions imposed start with political and diplomatic measures that have no significant bite? The Security Council's record in this respect is hardly encouraging. That said, there is a positive model that, with improvements, could have an impact. After the downings of American and French airliners were traced to Libyan agents, the Security Council imposed increasingly tough sanctions over a decade. A Libya-plus package could be imposed on Iran. Possibilities include: curtailing flights; squeezing financial inflows; shrinking diplomatic missions; limiting importation of refined fuel to the minimum demanded by basic humanitarian needs; discontinuing scientific exchanges, and expelling Iran from international sports competitions. Skeptics are likely to doubt the effectiveness of such measures. But they were eventually effective in Libya's case. Moreover, Iran - unlike Libya - has a vast merchant class as well as an educated elite and a relatively broad middle class. It is therefore more vulnerable to international isolation. There has already been a staggering amount of capital flight from Iran - an estimated $200 billion, which is four times Iran's annual oil revenues - since the election of President Ahmadinejad. The Iranian stock market has also essentially collapsed and may be forced to close. Iran was not always an Islamist republic, much less one bent on harassing other nations and faiths. Though some argue that international isolation will drive the people into the hands of the regime, the more likely result is the opposite: Popular pressure against the regime will grow, and combine with the already significant resistance to clerical rule. If Iran is indeed taken before the Security Council in March, the challenge will be to set the bar high, deadlines tight, and impose tough - not symbolic - sanctions quickly. It may still be possible to avoid the necessity of military action, but only if the international community employs non-military measures with uncharacteristic speed and determination.