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Security Council Fails to Move Iran

Prepared by: Michael Moran
March 31, 2006

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Iran’s determination to continue enriching uranium—a key step in the nuclear bomb-making process—appears completely undimmed by a unanimous statement from the UN Security Council urging it to cease and desist. The torturous negotiations on the wording of the statement—which sought to balance the tough line favored by the United States, Britain, and France with the unwillingness of Russia and China to consider sanctions—were heralded by Beijing’s People’s Daily as "a triumph of compromise." Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, while rejecting the referral of the matter to the Security Council, notes it now appears very unlikely that sanctions will result.

As the Economist concludes, the council’s nonbinding statement giving Iran thirty days to halt something it could halt today is "hardly an impressive start" to what had been billed as the international community’s showdown with Iran. Each permanent member state put its own spin on the move (BBC), of course. The difficulty of building a successful sanctions regime against Iran is outlined in this CFR Background Q&A by Robert McMahon.

So what happens if Iran ignores the statement? Flynt Leverett, a former senior U.S. policymaker, tells cfr.org’s Bernard Gwertzman Washington’s only real option is to open a "strategic dialogue" with Iran, which Tehran has been trying to secure since after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. CFR Senior Fellows Charles Kupchan and Ray Takeyh agree; in the International Herald Tribune they write "relying on blustery threats to browbeat Tehran into submission is poised only to backfire."

As diplomatic options narrow, two schools of thought are emerging.  One, exemplified by a report from arms-proliferation expert Henry Sokolski to the Transatlantic Institute, urges the United States and other major powers to start planning for a world that includes a nuclear-armed Iran. Barry Posen of MIT’s Center for International Studies argues likewise.

The other, more hawkish tendency draws inspiration from the Bush administration’s updated National Security Strategy, which declares: "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran." To that end, conservative voices such as Charles Krauthammer and the Washington Times are pushing for military action. News outlets like Newsweek, Spiegel and the Times of London all have recently examined the possibility of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Experts are divided whether such a strike can succeed (CSMonitor). A recent paper by British military expert Paul Rogers suggests such a strike by Israel or the United States might seriously damage Iran’s program but would "not be a short-termed matter." He suggests regular follow-up attacks would be required to prevent Iran from reacting with a crash effort to build a weapon. Many experts characterize the military option as more of a bargaining chip than a real threat. But in the Middle East, many also take it seriously.  Al-Ahram, the state-controlled Egyptian publication, ran an analysis of possible military scenarios this week. Israeli and Iranian officials, meanwhile, have exchanged barbs recently, including an Iranian promise to destroy Israel’s primary nuclear facility (Haaretz) at Dimona if anyone strikes at Iran. Bluff or not, the failure of diplomacy to date has given the "military option" a new public airing.

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