Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Half a Step Forward to Rein in Iran

Joel Brinkley, The NY Times:
The Bush administration threatened, cajoled and played every card it held to win the split decision Saturday on Iran's nuclear program before the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Looking ahead, though, that was the easy part. READ MORE

The agency's board voted by a slim majority to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council because of an "absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes," the resolution says. But the actual referral cannot take place until the board votes again. That will not be before November, and the outcome then is far from assured.

Western diplomats acknowledge that some countries that voted in favor of Saturday's resolution may not vote in favor of the actual referral. A senior diplomat said India, which surprised the West by voting in favor on Saturday, is not promising to vote the same way next time.

What is more, the composition of the board will change in the weeks ahead, "and not for the better," a European diplomat acknowledged Monday. At least two members that voted with the United States and its European allies will rotate off the board, to be replaced by two, Cuba and Belarus, that are very unlikely to vote with the present majority.

A Western diplomat suggested that the difficulties might not be insurmountable. "Lots of people were saying we might not get a vote in favor of Security Council referral this time, too," the diplomat said.

Still, realizing that the drive to drag Iran before the Security Council is fraught with uncertainties, senior administration officials have begun talking up a new strategy, one they say they can adopt in concert with the Europeans if the current path reaches an unsatisfactory end.

If Iran does not meet the demands of the agency, the United Nations nuclear monitor, Europe has other leverage, a senior administration official said. "If Europe exhausts the diplomatic options, it would have the leverage of diplomatic sanctions, and economic sanctions," the official said, given the "commercial and trade relations with Iran that most Europeans have."

But several European diplomats, in interviews on Monday, said they were dubious at best about that idea. Most of their countries buy oil from Iran, and economic sanctions that led to a boycott of Iranian oil would drive record-high oil prices even higher - as Iran has pointedly noted.

One senior European diplomat said he thought it unlikely that Europe would embrace the idea of trade sanctions.

"If you look at North Korea, it's a very poor country, and trade sanctions have not been effective," he said. "How would Iran, a much more rich country, be coerced by trade sanctions?" Besides, he added, "oil is fungible, it is a commodity that you cannot easily keep from markets."

He and other diplomats insisted that they could not be identified by name under the rules of their foreign ministries.

European officials say the United States has raised the sanctions idea with them. But "nobody is ready to talk about that now," another European diplomat said, adding that Iran "is the sort of problem that needs to be dealt with by the Security Council."

American officials readily acknowledge that the vote in favor of referral was in part the result of an unexpected, almost providential, act - a bellicose speech by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran before the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 17.

"It is clear to us that Ahmadinejad's speech at the United Nations last weekend backfired," R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, said in a briefing for reporters on Saturday. "It was seen as excessively harsh and uncompromising, and caught the attention of the international community.

"Before this speech was made," he added, "most people we were talking to thought a vote like this probably wouldn't be possible."

Officials and diplomats acknowledge that they are not likely to be so lucky next time. The senior European diplomat said he and others were pleasantly surprised by Iran's low-key reaction to the vote.

"They didn't come back with a clear condemnation," he said. "They said they were interested in continuing to talk."

That is what the United States and its European allies are hoping - that Iran, startled as it was by Saturday's vote, will back down, stop the uranium processing that was restarted last month and return to talks with the Europeans.

The next few weeks will "give Iran a little space to reflect on its options," the senior administration official said.

That will also give the United States and its allies time to reflect on their own options if Iran does not respond as they hope, because their alternatives do not look so encouraging now.