The leaders of the United States, France and Britain wanted to show strength and resolve Friday as they denounced Iran’s belated disclosure that it is building a second nuclear fuel enrichment facility.
Instead, they showed just how isolated the Western industrial democracies have become.
There were 20 prominent heads of state in Pittsburgh that morning, gathered for the G-20 economic summit. President Obama, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom could cite the support only of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel, who was 48 hours away from facing her country’s pacifist voters in a re-election bid, had more pressing matters on her schedule than Persian Gulf saber rattling, but Obama conveyed her best wishes.
More conspicuously absent from that Pittsburgh hall were Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and China’s President Hu Jintao. Those two nations are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and would have veto power over the additional sanctions against Iran that the U.S., Britain and France are likely to seek.
Three earlier rounds of sanctions against Iran have neither undermined its regime nor halted its so-called civilian nuclear program, which Israel and the Western powers strongly believe is aimed at creating atomic weapons. There is no reason to think either China or Russia will permit the U.N. to take any additional measures harsh enough to make a difference.
Preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons is an important objective, but one that may be unreachable without using military force, a move that no country except Israel seems willing to contemplate. Open conflict between Israel and Iran would be even more dangerous, on a global scale, than having Iran possess a nuclear bomb.
In the end, I believe the United States will try to prevail on Israel to refrain from using force against Iran, while Russia and China will constrain other measures to the point of near hopelessness. In this case, Iran ultimately gets a bomb if it wants one.
Obama and his allies undoubtedly know this, but the longer the negotiations-and-sanctions drama plays out, the more opportunity there is for some game-changer to occur, such as an internal rebellion against Iran’s ruling military-clerical coalition. The odds are not good, but it may be the only game in town.
A chasm has opened between the way we and our European allies see proliferation threats like Iran, and the way the rest of the world measures the threat.
According to London, Washington and Paris, the Iranian regime is an extremist sponsor of terror that rules its own people with an iron fist — see this summer’s crackdown against demonstrators protesting election fraud — while spreading mayhem throughout the Middle East via proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas. The world would be a far better place if the Iranian regime were to go away. At the very least, international rules against nuclear proliferation should be strictly enforced against it.
Elsewhere, this view smacks of blatant hypocrisy and Western self-interest. Israel is a nuclear power, though it does not admit it. Iran and Israel are locked in a proxy struggle in which Israel is not widely considered the good guy. Given that view, Iran’s effort to harness atomic force can be seen as self-defense against a potential Israeli strike. But the United States and its allies are not pushing for sanctions and intrusive international inspections to be imposed upon Israel.
Our desire for regime change in Tehran is not shared in Moscow and Beijing. Those governments are not sticklers for free and fair elections. They view such matters as purely internal affairs, and they certainly do not want to support international action to the contrary.
India prides itself on its democracy, but it is not in the Western camp on Iranian sanctions, either. India itself became a nuclear power in 1974, followed by its arch-rival Pakistan in the 1990s. Neither country has ratified the non-proliferation treaty (nor, for that matter, has Israel). Pakistan has been a launching pad for terror attacks across the West and in India, notably the Mumbai atrocity last year. The Indians see no need for sanctions against Iran when the West tolerates nuclear weapons virtually without protest in Pakistan.
Economic sanctions have a poor track record in any case. American trade measures against Cuba have accomplished little in nearly half a century. Likewise the broad U.S. ban on trade with Iran since 1979 has been ineffectual. Broader international sanctions made life uncomfortable but not unmanageable in Iraq for more than a decade and in Libya for more than two.
Sanctions often serve to entrench the targeted regimes against their domestic opponents. The regimes typically hold more control over scarce resources and lucrative smuggling routes than would be the case with more open trade and are able to deflect criticism by blaming internal problems on the sanctions.
The most successful sanctions in modern history might have been those against South Africa in the 1980s, which led to the end of the apartheid regime in 1991. Those sanctions also had the greatest worldwide support. The lack of such broad support does not bode well for the current and potential future measures against Iran.
We got through the Cold War with the Soviet Union without a devastating nuclear exchange, before the fall of that government reduced the threat of war. China is a nuclear power and a rising economic rival, but our extensive trade and financial ties give us a measure of security that no sanctions ever could. The Chinese don’t want to hurt us (especially since we owe them $1 trillion or so), and we don’t want to hurt them. If Cuba-style sanctions were in place against China, neither side would have this security.
Further sanctions are Plan B against Iran if negotiations fail, and military action may be Plan C, but neither is likely to be effective at a level the world is willing to bear. That leaves us with Plan D, which may be to ultimately live with a nuclear-armed Iran as we presently do with Pakistan and North Korea. That may be the only real choice in the end.