U.S. v. Iran: Running Out the Clock

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Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech.

Nobody on any side of the Iran nuclear dispute believes that yesterday's U.N. sanctions vote is going to break the deadlock. Faced with continuing Iranian defiance of the demand that it suspend uranium enrichment until concerns over the intent of its nuclear program can be resolved, the Security Council passed a package that incrementally tightens existing sanctions. It banned travel by certain officials of Iran's nuclear program, freezed the assets of certain companies and barred Iran from importing certain dual-use technologies. But Iran has made quite clear that it has no intention of complying with the U.N.'s demand, which it deems "illegal," and it is more than capable of absorbing the very limited pain inflicted by the new measures. Indeed, the package agreed upon on Monday reflected the lowest-common-denominator consensus between countries such as the U.S., Britain and France, which wanted tougher sanctions, and countries such as Russia and China that want to avoid measures with real bite, both because of their own commercial ties with Iran and because they believe putting Iran's back against the wall will simply exacerbate the conflict.

So, despite being the subject of a new sanctions package adopted by the overwhelming consensus at the Security Council (Indonesia's abstention was the only discordant note), Iran is not feeling particularly isolated or pressured. The Council vote came on the same day that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concluded his historic state visit to Baghdad, where he was feted and hailed as a friend by a government entirely dependent on the U.S. for its security. Nor is Iraq alone among Arab states in ignoring Washington's calls for Iran's isolation. Ahmadinejad was the personal guest of the Saudi king during the recent Hajj pilgrimage, and even Egypt is responding to Iranian diplomatic initiatives aimed at ending almost four decades of hostility with the Islamic Republic. It's not that Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are simply ignoring the sources of tension with Tehran: instead theirs is a regional realpolitik that sees a cooperative relationship as a more productive way of addressing those issues than the more confrontational stance of the U.S.

Similarly, on the nuclear issue, Britain's ambassador to the U.N., John Sawers, told reporters that the Security Council would hold firm in the demand for Iran to suspend enrichment, but would pursue that goal through ongoing negotiations even as the limited sanctions are put into effect. Last year's U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons development program has, in effect, removed the sense of looming crisis that had once driven the issue, and rendered the option of a U.S. military strike to destroy Iranian facilities highly improbable. (It is acknowledged, however, that Iran's current nuclear activities would put such capability within easy reach if the leadership in Tehran should opt to pursue such weapons.)

The U.S. official who until now has been Washington's point man in handling the Iranian nuclear issue — U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who left office last week — has made clear that the standoff will land on the desk of the next U.S. President rather than being resolved under the Bush Administration. "I think this is going to be a drama that plays out well into 2009 and beyond," Burns told the Council on Foreign Relations last week. He added, "There's plenty of room for this type of diplomacy, both sanctions as well as the positive offers of negotiations. That will continue, I'm quite sure, into the next Administration."

In fact, the sanctions agreed upon on Monday may really form part of a holding pattern, in which sanctions are maintained in support of Security Council demands, but not significantly escalated. After all, next January, a new U.S. Administration assumes office, and the following summer, Iranians vote in a presidential election in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is far from certain to be reelected. And there's a greater likelihood that a fresh cast of characters in both Washington and Tehran might be better able to make headway in negotiating over a range of issues of tension between the two powers than are the current incumbents.