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June 12, 2006

Bush Iran Strategy Suffers Major Diplomatic Defeat

by Gareth Porter

Despite claims that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has regained the diplomatic initiative from Iran with a conditional offer to join multilateral talks with Tehran, the real story behind the policy shift is that the administration has suffered a decisive defeat of its effort to get international sanctions for possible military action against Iran.

U.S. officials and French and British diplomats have sought to obscure the failure to get the agreement of Russia and China to a hard-line UN Security Council resolution making Iranian compliance mandatory if it refused to suspend its uranium enrichment activities. Nevertheless, details of the proposal finally given to Iran and Russia's subsequent statement both confirm that the administration has had to accept a package without the threat of Security Council action it had counted on.

The list of "possible measures in the event that Iran does not cooperate" in the proposal, as revealed by Reuters on June 9 based on the earlier draft of the proposal released by ABC News and interviews with Western diplomats, includes 13 economic and diplomatic "disincentives" to be applied gradually, depending on Iran's behavior. But the document makes no reference to the possibility of an enforceable Security Council decision that the Bush administration could use to justify a military attack on Iran.

Going into the crucial negotiations on Iran's nuclear program between Washington and the other five powers – France, Britain, China, Russia, and Germany – in early May, the Bush administration had regarded such an enforceable Security Council action as the key to its strategy for increasing the pressure on Iran.

The New York Times reported April 30 that U.S. officials had described an administration plan by Rice to get agreement on a UN Security Council resolution requiring that Iran cease enriching uranium that would be enforceable under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Chapter VII authorizes the use of penalties, and if those are ineffective, of military force.

It is now clear that Rice hoped to get the agreement of the five powers to her plan by making a concession the administration had been resisting for weeks – the agreement to join the talks between the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) with Iran. On her way to New York for the crucial meeting with the other five powers May 8 and 9, Rice shared with aides her plan to offer that concession at the meeting, as senior State Department officials later revealed to the Times.

In return, the United States wanted the five powers to call for UN sanctions under Chapter VII.

But the Russians and Chinese had other ideas. Before the crucial New York meeting, Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had gotten assurances from both Russia and China that they would not support any Chapter VII resolution in the Security Council. On May 2, Mottaki had told the conservative Kayhan newspaper, "The thing these two countries have official told us and expressed in diplomatic negotiations is their opposition to sanctions and military attacks."

The Iranian foreign minister expressed confidence that "no sanctions or anything like that will be on the agenda of the Security Council."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Li Zhaoxing were unmoved by Rice's sudden willingness to join the talks with Iran. Reuters reported that night, "China has made it clear that any reference to possible sanctions or war should be eliminated from the UN resolution order to Tehran to curb is nuclear program. Both Moscow and Beijing oppose invoking Chapter VII of the UN charter."

Steve Weisman of the New York Times confirmed in a May 19 report that Lavrov had made it clear in the May 8-9 meeting that Russia would not go along with any Security Council resolution that made compliance mandatory. The Europeans at the meeting, he observed, had been more realistic, hoping only that the Russians would accept a threat of sanctions divorced from Chapter VII.

Thus the real story behind Rice's dramatic May 31 announcement and the proposal announced in muted terms the following day in Vienna is that the United States had backed down and accepted a package without the threat of Security Council sanctions Rice and Bush had wanted going into New York.

It was a major defeat for the administration's policy, which Rice and other administration officials immediately began to cover up. The day after the fateful New York meeting, Rice admitted only to "some tactical differences about how to express that in the Security Council," and suggested that those slight differences would all be ironed in "a couple of weeks."

That same day, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick assured members of Congress that China had "agreed in principle" to go along with the U.S. plan for sanctions – something he most likely knew by then was not the case. But a careful read-through of his testimony would have noted his clear attempt to pressure China over the issue, saying China's relationship with the U.S. was "going to be determined by how they act in Iran in dealing with this nuclear issue."

Rice continued to maneuver over the next three weeks, along with Britain and France, to get agreement on a Chapter VII resolution. The Associated Press reported May 20 that the three governments had agreed on a draft that included the sentence, "Where appropriate, these measures would be adopted under Chapter VII, Article 41 of the UN Charter."

The administration's desperation to obtain Russian and Chinese support for the U.S. aim is indicated by the fact that President George W. Bush made a personal call to Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 30, according to a June 1 Los Angeles Times report.

Bush was unable to sway the Russian leader. As reported by RIA Novosti news agency on June 8, Foreign Minister Lavrov said Russia would back UN Security Council "measures" against Iran only if "Iran starts to act in contradiction to its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty" (NPT).

Iran's enrichment program itself does not constitute a violation of the NPT, much to the dismay of the United States, which has proposed changes to the treaty that would outlaw such activities.

At her May 31 press conference, when asked whether she had agreement from Russia and China for UN sanctions, Rice ducked the issue, saying, "I think there is substantial agreement and understanding that Iran now faces a clear choice."

The defeat of the administration's plan for getting major power support for the threat of potential military action does not mean the Bush administration is incapable of going to war. But it makes the possibility of military action increasingly difficult, adding another dimension to Rice's refrain that "Iran is not Iraq."

(Inter Press Service)


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  • Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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