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Got the sticks. Now the talks.

Author: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
March 30, 2007
International Herald Tribune


Skilled diplomacy by the Bush administration has delivered a UN Security Council resolution that will intensify sanctions on Iran, a victory that seems to validate the administration’s aversion to discussions with Tehran.

But no UN decision has ever persuaded a state to give up nuclear weapons. The point of going to the Security Council is to reinforce diplomacy with a demonstration of international solidarity.

The way to do that is to keep tightening the screws so long as Iran refuses to suspend its nuclear activities.

If the crisis precipitated by Iran’s illegal capture of 15 British sailors and marines is not resolved soon, all bets are off. But if Iran relents, the administration should capitalize on the rare display of international resolve at the UN by working with Britain and its European allies to talk directly to Tehran.

Last June’s tortured UN negotiations on sanctions were a textbook example of what not to do. It took the Security Council nearly two months, and the public sparring widened rifts between the United States and Europe and broadcast deep divisions with China and Russia. The result gave Iran reason to believe that it could divide the international community and buy time to pursue its nuclear program.

This time, Council members ironed out their differences behind closed doors, and it took the Security Council less than three weeks to reach agreement. The limited scope of the resolution - it bars Iran from exporting arms but allows it to continue to import weapons - is offset by the swiftness of the deliberations.

The new resolution tightens one adopted in December, which clamped down on a small number of Iranian entities, by broadening it to include 28 individuals and firms. In light of the gradual build-up of pressure on Iran, the new resolution’s call for voluntary restraint in arms exports implies a threat to bar all weapons sales if Tehran continues to disregard the Security Council.

Some in the Bush administration believe the sanctions will compel Tehran to suspend enrichment and bring it to the table. But that outcome cannot be depended on, as Iran’s provocative actions in the last week confirm.

What the administration should do now, assuming the hostage crisis is resolved successfully, is look for an opportunity to enter into discussions on the strength of the Security Council vote.

The United States is not yet in a position to negotiate - it does not know what would persuade Iran to put its nuclear program in deep freeze - but it can begin by engaging Iran at the April meeting of foreign ministers on Iraq.

The bombastic Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has declared that the Iranian “nuclear train has no brakes or reverse gear,” is a gift to those who are rightly trying to wake the world up to the Iranian nuclear danger.

But the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Larijani, who represents the Iranian Supreme Leader and who should be at the meeting, may be able to slow that train, if not stop it.

The Iraq meeting is an opportunity to judge the potential value of genuine negotiations while the United States and its allies continue to enforce the sanctions.

This will require the administration to put ideology aside and adopt the pragmatic approach that worked with North Korea. That agreement became possible only when the administration combined sanctions with diplomacy.

With the new Security Council resolution, the United States has one piece - real pressure - in place. The worst thing the administration could do now is to sit back in the hope that this is enough to bring Iran around.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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