Fresh off of victory, President Bush will face a major test in the coming weeks on the multilateral approach he has adopted toward Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. Even as Washington is backing European efforts to pressure Tehran, the newly re-elected president is looking to the United Nations Security Council to pick up the lead on thwarting Iranian nuclear aspirations.
Looming over ongoing talks between Tehran and the trio of Germany, France and England is a November 25 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog. The Bush administration has been urging the agency’s board of governors to refer Iran’s alleged violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the Security Council, which then could slap sanctions on Tehran.
Most observers believe the Europeans’ negotiations with Iran will preclude the matter from making its way to the Security Council, at least for the time being. But even if Tehran is brought before the U.N. body, critics of the administration say, Bush has no clear strategy for what happens next.
“I’ve asked the administration many times what happens after the Security Council, and they didn’t answer,” said Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat. “My bet is, they don’t know.”
Tehran insists it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes and is entitled to do so under the nonproliferation treaty. But in an unusual convergence, Republicans, Democrats, European and Israeli officials agree that Iran is in fact pursuing a weapons program and that only a broad international effort can prevent it from acquiring nuclear capabilities.
Iran’s nuclear aspirations have “to be dealt with by the international community,” said Danny Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, during a recent briefing with the Forward. “This is a threat to global security.”
Israeli officials and members of the Bush administration have been quick to issue harsh criticisms of European nations on several policy fronts and suggest that they are ill equip to address various Middle East issues. At the same time, however, the Bush administration and the Sharon government have been looking to France, Germany and Britain to lead the way in confronting Iran.
The three European countries have spent months attempting to forge an agreement with Tehran, under which Iran would suspend its uranium enrichment program in exchange for peaceful nuclear technology, as well as trade advantages and support on security issues. The Bush administration has supported the talks, in addition to trying to raise the specter of Security Council sanctions.
Even if the atomic agency eventually decides to refer the issue to the Security Council, the chances of convincing members to impose sanctions against Iran are slim, observers said.
Experts note that even if Western European countries accept the referral to the Security Council, Russia, which has been building a giant nuclear plant in Iran for years, and China, which has become a major energy buyer and just signed a $70 billion deal with Iran to provide natural gas, are unlikely to endorse harsh sanctions against Tehran. The two nations could use their veto power to prevent such a move.
“So far, the Bush administration has threatened to refer Iran’s ongoing enrichment of uranium to the Security Council, which is a lot like a parent threatening unruly children, ‘Don’t make me pull this car over.’ In both cases the threat is mostly a bluff,” Kenneth Pollack, director of research at The Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, wrote in an e-mail.
“The problem is that there is nothing to suggest that the Security Council will impose meaningful sanctions on Iran. In fact, the most likely scenario if the matter is referred to the Security Council is for a long debate resulting in little more than a slap on the wrist,” wrote Pollack. A former CIA analyst and National Security Council staffer under the Clinton administration, Pollack advocates a carrot-and-stick approach to Iran in a new book titled “The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America.” He proposes holding out the prospect of a comprehensive settlement of all outstanding issues between Washington and Tehran, while pushing a revamped containment policy in close cooperation with Europe, Japan, Russia and China.
On Tuesday, Iranian president Mohammad Khatami ruled out a definitive halt to uranium enrichment but said he remained optimistic that negotiations with the European states, set to resume in Paris on Friday, would prevent the issue from ending up before the Security Council.
In his annual report to the United Nations General Assembly, Mohammed ElBaradei, the atomic agency’s director general, urged Iran on Monday to pursue a policy of “maximum transparency” and to suspend its uranium program.
Both Republicans and Democrats have stressed the need to tackle the issue diplomatically. But Democrats have blasted the administration’s decision to let European countries play the lead role.
“Continuing the policy of letting the French, German and British represent an international coalition in Tehran will not succeed,” Richard Holbrooke, who served as a senior foreign policy adviser to the Kerry campaign, told a gathering of pro-Israel activists last week. “Europe will never be an effective diplomatic tool without the United States taking the lead,” Holbrooke said while addressing a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, advocates a series of steps that could ratchet up the pressure on Tehran, including increasing U.S. military presence around Iran and putting nuclear weapons on U.S. ships off Iran’s coast. In addition, Clawson favors bolstering the region’s protection against missiles — including accelerating the planned enhancement of the Arrow antimissile system in Israel — and extending an explicit nuclear umbrella to those threatened by Iran.
“Containment and deterrence can pressure Iran to accept a diplomatic solution and they enhance the ability of the U.S. to use military force later if needed,” Clawson told the Forward.
Israeli officials have misgivings about engaging Tehran.
Referring to the concept of supplying energy to Iran, Ayalon said, “I don’t think they should be given anything.” The Israeli ambassador warned that the Iranians would seek to abuse any energy-sharing deals.
While insisting that “the Iranians haven’t crossed the point of no return,” Ayalon said that they are “hell-bent on getting a military weapon” and are bent on producing dozens, if not hundreds, of nuclear devices.
In recent months, top Israeli military officials have hinted at a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, eliciting threats of retaliation from Tehran.
Most security analysts, however, believe that replicating the 1981 Israeli raid on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq is unrealistic, pointing to the lack of reliable intelligence about the scope of Iran’s nuclear network and to its suspected reliance on widely dispersed, underground facilities.
Ayalon said his country sees a diplomatic solution as the best option, adding that the Security Council could help slow down the Iranian nuclear program by imposing economic sanctions and isolating the regime.