Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Lonely American

I spent the evening going through some IAEA reports, UN Security Council resolutions and a timeline of Iran's uranium enrichment program to get a better sense of why I'm feeling so pessimistic about the direction the deepening US-Iran standoff is taking. The good news is that the reading helped me locate the source of my pessimism. The bad news is that it did nothing to alleviate it. The problem is that the actual uranium enrichment conflict, as significant as it is, is really functioning as a pretext for underlying strategic faultlines, both regional and global, that have far wider implications. Any diplomatic resolution of the crisis will depend on taking these faultlines into account, which doesn't seem like a very realistic possibility these days. And any non-diplomatic resolution of the crisis (ie. unilateral military strikes) will only exacerbate them, regardless of whether or not it successfully eliminates Iran's enrichment capacity.

To get a better sense of just what those underlying faultlines are, it helps to examine the Bush administration's two-track approach to the issue. The first track is essentially a political/legal remedy to the difficulties involved in enforcing nuclear non-proliferation, namely that there's nothing inherently illegal about developing nuclear weapons. The only response is to build a diplomatic coalition capable of defining the terms under which the Iranian program is non-compliant with existing treaties and agreements. This was accomplished through the UN Security Council resolution of July 2006 which, as a result of Iran's failure to allow IAEA inspectors more intrusive access to its nuclear facilities (the so-called Additional Protocol that Iran voluntarily signed in December 2003), demanded that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment activity. When the IAEA later reported neither inspections progress nor enrichment suspension in its reports of August 2006 and November 2006, the US and its EU allies had what they needed to secure the two UNSC resolutions that first imposed and then strengthened sanctions.

The limitations of this political/legal remedy are that, a) sanctions might not suffice to persuade Iran to renounce its nuclear program; b) the Bush administration has not demonstrated the necessary diplomatic savvy to assemble a strong coalition capable of really tightening the screws on Iran; and c) Iran has shown increasing willingness to comply with the IAEA's Additional Protocol, as demonstrated by the relatively upbeat report the Agency issued in August 2007. If the Iranians do, in fact, end up cooperating with the intrusive inspection regime, the legal foundation of the Bush administration's approach (ie. crippling UN sanctions) crumbles, while Iran's ability to eventually build nuclear weapons stays intact.

Which brings us to the second track of the Bush administration's approach, which is exemplified by the President's recent "World War Three" remarks and can best be described as an extra-legal approach to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The Bush argument essentially boils down to a subjective and unilateral determination of just who will and who will not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. And it's this argument that brings into focus the strategic faultlines that spread out beneath the surface of this conflict in just about every direction. Because it's an argument that alienates small-to-middling regional powers who, whether they entertain nuclear ambitions or not, will identify with Iran's efforts to expand its sphere of influence. And it insults the sensibilities of major powers who have an interest in establishing these middling powers as their client states.

Take the Russians, for instance, who have got plenty of reasons ($1.2 million of them in the case of Iran's Bushehr reactor, to be exact) to refuse to grant the US an effective veto power over who they can and can't do business with. By increasingly aligning himself with Iran in this standoff, Putin is sending the message that he can and will make things difficult for Washington if it refuses to take Russia's interests into consideration. Behind the Russians, and basically echoing their annoyance, are the Chinese, and to a lesser extent, some of our EU allies. For the time being, Russia's posturing is mainly symbolic. They have yet to deliver the uranium fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor, and probably won't until Iran offers more oversight concessions to the international community. But that could change if the American position hardens into an even more obnoxious expression of the unilateralism that has already alienated so much of the world to date.

What's remarkable about the American position is that it's managed to crystallize so much international support for a prospect -- a nuclear Iran -- that otherwise doesn't play very well outside of Tehran. The reason being that given the choice between an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon and an America bingeing on unilateral military interventions, a significant portion of the globe would feel more comfortable with the former. We don't really know what the global balance of power will look like once a majority of nations identify their self-interest with opposing American interests. But we're sure to find out if we continue to strong-arm the Iran conflict towards a unilateral military strike.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Russia   

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