Friday, September 22, 2006

U.N. Charades

The Wall Street Journal:
Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put on quite a show at the United Nations this week, and it's tempting to dismiss it all as mere bombast. Except that their assertiveness can't be separated from the more important U.N. story this week, which is its continuing failure to come to grips with Iran's open defiance of the Security Council's demand that it suspend uranium enrichment.

At issue is whether the U.N. can have any role in enforcing collective security -- and the mystery is why the very nations that say the U.N. must do so are doing the most to undermine it. Consider the behavior of Russia, France and China -- all veto-wielding members of the Security Council -- in squaring up to the Iranian threat.

In July, the Council adopted Resolution 1696, which noted "with serious concern that . . . Iran has not taken the steps required of it by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] Board of Governors." The Council went on to express "its intention . . . to adopt appropriate measures under Article 41 of Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations to persuade Iran to comply with this resolution. . . ." Article 41 refers to all legally binding measures short of war -- sanctions, that is -- to bring states into compliance with U.N. resolutions. The Resolution said Iran must cease enriching uranium by August 31, a deadline Tehran has openly flouted.

So, serious consequences? Not quite. Chinese Middle East envoy Sun Bigan has rejected sanctions on Iran as "detrimental not only to the region but also to ourselves" -- the latter a reference to China's oil imports from Iran, up 56% from last year. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov -- who is selling Iran a $700 million air-defense system -- also says sanctions won't work. That sentiment was echoed earlier this week by France's Jacques Chirac, whom the Bush Administration has claimed is a stalwart ally in stopping Iran. "I am never favorable to sanctions," said the French President, adding that, if they are unavoidable, they should be "moderate and adapted."

In other words, it has taken less than a month for the deadline set by Resolution 1696 to prove to be absolutely meaningless, something Mr. Ahmadinejad predicted in April. Why then would the Permanent Five risk their credibility as an institution by setting a deadline in the first place? Why threaten sanctions if they have no intention of imposing them?

The answer may be that U.N. diplomacy has come to serve as a deterrent not against Iran but against any American effort to do anything about Iran's rush to acquire the bomb. Iran's nuclear programs are accelerating under this diplomatic cover, as its inauguration of a heavy-water nuclear plant late last month shows. Heavy-water reactors are the kind that throw off more weapons-usable fuel. The Iranian newspaper Siyasat-e Ruz underlined that event as evidence of the "worthlessness of this American resolution."

Meanwhile, the "cowboy" American President looks increasingly like the one who's been lassoed by the U.N., not vice versa. In 2003, the U.S. agreed to downplay clear evidence that Iran was cheating on its nuclear nonproliferation treaty commitments in order to give European diplomacy a chance. The U.S. continued to do so even after it became clear that the Iranians continued to cheat well into 2004.

Later that year, the Administration went along with another European negotiation, which collapsed after six months. Earlier this year, President Bush agreed in principle to negotiate directly with Tehran, provided it suspend enrichment. He has also repeatedly underlined the point, most recently in this week's speech to the General Assembly, that the U.S. does not oppose Iran's bid to develop civilian nuclear power sources.

Throughout all this, the Administration has consistently deferred, both in timing and tactics, to Europe, Russia, the IAEA, and now the Security Council. Its single insistence is that the international community demonstrate good faith in its ostensible commitment to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. But that good faith has been conspicuously absent, raising the question about who is really serious about giving the U.N. a chance to show its "relevance."

The conclusion is hard to resist that the U.N. effort is really about persuading America that it can "live with" an Iranian bomb, just as it lives with a Pakistani bomb, because the costs of economic sanctions or military strikes are supposedly prohibitive. But a glimpse of what the world will look like if Iran succeeds was provided on Tuesday by Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Cairo's heir apparent floated a proposal for Egypt to develop its own nuclear programs, clearly a signal that the largest Sunni Arab country will go nuclear itself to prevent Shiite Iran from dominating the region. And where Egypt goes, Saudi Arabia and Turkey cannot be far behind. Is the international system really prepared to live with five, maybe six, nuclear powers in the Middle East? READ MORE

The media portrayed this week's U.N. speeches as a soap opera showdown between Mr. Bush and his adversaries. But in the matter of Iran's nuclear ambitions, it is not only the Middle East that is at risk, but the U.N., which is why Messrs. Chávez and Ahmadinejad felt so free to mock its evident failures.