Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Progress, of a sort 

The United States and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council reached surprising agreement Tuesday that Iran should be hauled before that powerful body over its disputed nuclear program.

China and Russia, longtime allies and trading partners of Iran, signed on to a statement that calls on the U.N. nuclear watchdog to transfer the Iran dossier to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions or take other harsh action.

Foreign ministers from those nations, plus the United States, Britain and France, also said the Security Council should wait until March to take up the Iran case, after a formal report on Tehran's activities from the watchdog agency.

Foreign ministers from Germany and the European Union also attended the dinner and agreed to what amounted to a compromise — take the case to the Security Council but allow a short breather before the council undertakes what could be a divisive debate.


It remains to be seen whether the UNSC is in fact a "powerful body" -- it is certainly less powerful than the sum of its parts -- or that it will do a damned thing to contain Iran. Russia and China each have deep economic interests in Iran, although they are very different (Russia would benefit from dramatically higher oil prices and might therefore support a buyer's embargo even if it meant they lost their nuclear power business, but China would suffer from a spike in oil prices). However, none of the nuclear powers want to see that status lose its cache. If Iran has made one thing clear in the last few months, it is that its acquisition of atomic weapons will substantially depreciate that currency.

Iran certainly has a way of driving the great powers completely around the bend. Of the five permanent members on the UNSC, three have occupied Iran in modern times (the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia's antecedent, the Soviet Union) and each suffered a geopolitical defeat for the pleasure. China also has, if you stretch the definition of time and ethnicity to include the Mongols (they conquered it on their way to sacking Baghdad in 1258, which isn't that long ago by China's reckoning). Long before oil was important, Iran sat at a crossroads.

I am only now getting up to speed on Iran, and will write more on that country and the West's confrontation with it in the near future. Suffice it to say that there are no simple solutions. All of them, though, require that the great powers at least pretend to unanimity, so today's news is progress, of a sort.


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