Sealing the Deal on Iran

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MICHAEL KAPPELER / REUTERS

Dai Bingguo from China, Russia's Sergei Lavrov and Condoleezza Rice from the U.S, meet with other foreign ministers from the United Nations Security Council in Berlin, Germany, to discuss Iran's disputed nuclear program on March 30, 2006

After three weeks of haggling, many Western diplomats had just about given up hope of convincing Moscow and Beijing to sign onto a U.N. Security Council statement pressing Iran to suspend its suspect nuclear activities, comply with international nonproliferation rules and return to negotiations with the Europeans.

But in the end, it took U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally working the phones, and ceding a little ground, to seal the deal — which gave Iran 30 days to suspend its uranium enrichment activities or face as yet unspecified consequences. In the last several days, Rice has spoken to her counterpart, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, on a number of occasions, to try and bridge the gap. On the last phone call Wednesday morning, state department officials said, Rice agreed to ask the British to strike a line from their draft statement suggesting that Iran’s rogue behavior might constitute a "threat to international peace and security."

While that may seem like mere semantics, in diplomatic parlance the phrase has a very specific — and to the Russians ominous — meaning; it echoes the U.N. charter and, in Lavrov's mind, could potentially serve as a precedent for subjecting Iran to punitive economic and political sanctions, which the U.S. supports and Russia adamantly opposes.

Lavrov, however, also made concessions. The British draft called for Mohamed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to report to the Security Council on Iran’s compliance or lack thereof. The Russians wanted El Baradei to report to the IAEA, but Rice and European officials said this would kick the Iran problem out of the Security Council and back to a weaker agency. The compromise, hammered out by Rice and Lavrov, called for El Baradei to report to both the Security Council and the IAEA.

It didn't take long for the antagonistic rhetoric from all sides to start again. When asked about Moscow’s concerns that Tehran might respond to a tough Security Council statement by expelling the IAEA inspectors now working in Iran, Rice responded sharply: "What they’re doing currently is kind of a salami tactic. First it was just going to be [uranium] conversion. Then it was just going to be a small scale R & D. Then it was going to be about centrifuge production," Rice said. "So I don’t see Iran particularly constrained by the fact that the IAEA continues to operate in Iran right now. [And] if Iran makes that threat and carries through on it then I think we’ll have a better and clearer view of what Iran’s intentions really are." And in Vienna, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's chief representative to the IAEA, told the AP that "it is impossible to go back to suspension. This enrichment matter is not reversible."

That, of course, was in many respects the response the U.S. and its allies fully expected to get. So at a meeting Thursday in Berlin of foreign ministers representing the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union, the topic at hand was already what to do if Iran ignores the so-called "Presidential Statement."

During the three and a half hour meeting, according to a senior U.S. official present, "a number of ministers including Rice said we had to have the option of moving toward sanctions at some point in the future, should Iran not respond to the diplomatic process." U.S. officials hope to convince the other Security Council members to devise "targeted" sanctions aimed at the Iranian ruling class while minimizing the impact on ordinary people.

Whether such finely tuned sanctions are even possible is not at all certain, but that is only part of the problem. While Rice was able to convince her Russian counterpart to sign on to the more mild rebuke, it quickly became clear that he would not be nearly as amenable to tougher penalties. "In principle Russia does not believe that sanctions could achieve the purposes of settlement of various issues," Lavrov declared. In fact, Lavrov said, the IAEA should do more investigation before concluding that Iran is in fact trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability under the cover of its civilian power reactor program. "Before we call any situation a threat," Lavrov said with evident skepticism of the West’s claims about Iran, "we need facts, especially in a region like the Middle East when so many things are happening."

Lavrov was not alone in pushing a continued go-slow approach. Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo made an effort to distance himself and his government from the U.S. - European strategy as well. The confrontation with Iran, he said, "can only be resolved through peaceful means. The Chinese side feels that there has already been enough turmoil in the Middle East."