The Corner

Iran Sanctions: Keep Your Champagne Corked

It may be churlish to dwell on the point, but the media’s celebration of the administration’s latest success in securing Chinese and Russian support for a draft United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions resolution against Iran is bit premature. Why?

It’s almost certain to take at least another ten days before the resolution can be brought before the U.N. for a vote. U.N. officials tell me that there is no way the sanctions resolution can be brought up before the conclusion of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference (which ends May 28) without risking the consensus needed for the final NPT Review Conference declaration, which the White House is still seeking. Add time to the tabling of any sanctions resolution, though, and you are likely to get more fiddling with the language and, probably, more concessions.

The White House has got to be reluctant to force any Security Council vote that only has the support of the Permanent Five (the U.S., Russia, China, France, and the U.K.) and its hangers-on and no Nonaligned Movement (NAM) member votes. Two reasons why:

1. It would suggest that, despite Obama’s dedication to disarmament and reaching out to Iran and the Muslim world, his administration is doing worse than Team Bush (i.e., John Bolton) on resolutions on Iran. All of Ambassador Bolton’s anti-nuclear-Iran resolutions were passed unanimously. It would also imply, as one former Bush official put it, that Obama’s strategies are “backfiring.”

2. It would suggest that the administration’s favorite foreign-policy forum, the United Nations, can’t be counted on to produce consensus on key security issues, and that international consensus against Iran’s nuclear misbehavior is waning.

To gain credibility, the administration must at least divide the NAM vote; to do this, it must get China’s help. But China may have given us all the help it will or can. On the one hand, Beijing is not going to be eager to see international sanctions against Iran become any stronger politically than they have to be, since, in practice, China is against Iran sanctions (Beijing has too many bad investments in Iran’s energy sector and elsewhere to be very much in favor of sanctioning Iran seriously). On the other hand, China would be the last country that would want to lean against the NAM since the NAM is generally on China’s side against the Hegemons.

Bottom-line: The weekend’s events, with Brazil and Turkey picking up where we left off on our October 2009 nuclear-fuel-swap offer to Iran, were a bit more serious than most of the press coverage is allowing. Certainly, for the moment, any celebrations over U.N. sanctions resolutions should kept on hold.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and author of Controlling the Further Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Council on Foreign Relations).

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