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
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)