After months of lobbying by the U.S. for additional sanctions against Iran, the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday finally passed, by a vote of 12 to 2 (with one abstention), a package of measures aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear program. But don't hold your breath waiting for Iran to start dismantling its reactors and centrifuges under international pressure. As loath as we are to agree with anything Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says, his description of the U.N. sanctions meaning as much to that country as "used napkins that need to be thrown in the garbage can" sounds about right.
The Americans worked hard to persuade Russia and China, which have extensive commercial ties with Iran as well as veto power on the council, to support sanctions. Yet getting them on board was hardly a diplomatic triumph: The price for their acquiescence was a resolution whose specifics were so watered down and enfeebled by linguistic caveats, it seemed barely up to deterring Iran's mullahs from jaywalking in downtown Tehran, let alone continuing to enrich uranium for atomic bombs.
Adding to the council's mixed message, temporary members Turkey and Brazil, both nominal U.S. allies, voted against the resolution after the U.S. rebuffed a deal they tried to broker that would have allowed Iran to ship some of its uranium out of the country for enrichment. Their "no" votes, coupled with Lebanon's abstention, denied the U.S. even the paltry satisfaction of unanimous support for its position among the 15-member body.
Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, praised the Security Council's action as a way of getting Iran back to the negotiating table. But it's hard to see how the deeply ambivalent atmospherics surrounding the council's decision will accomplish that. Both Russia and China insisted that sanctions not harm ordinary Iranians, and Chinese ambassador Li Baodong said his country would oppose any measure that affected trade with Iran. In other words, sanctions are fine so long as everyone is free to continue doing business as usual.
Nevertheless, the U.S. plans to press ahead with a harsher series of measures that it and the European Union pledged to impose once the U.N. Security Council acted. Those would come on top of the sanctions approved Wednesday that mainly target military, trade and financial transactions carried out by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, which runs the country's nuclear program. The U.N. restrictions also include freezing the assets and imposing travel bans on about 40 Iranian scientists and government officials involved with the nuclear program.
Whether the additional restrictions planned by the U.S. and E.U. will be enough to substantially alter Iranian behavior remains to be seen. The country's leaders have managed to evade every previous attempt to curb their nuclear program, and by now they are masters of the diplomatic rope-a-dope. A recent New York Times report chronicled the elaborate subterfuges the Iranian shipping industry has devised to smuggle nuclear technology and weapons components into the country using hundreds of vessels flagged under foreign shell companies whose officers and ownership are constantly changing.
Meanwhile, Iran is sticking to the fiction that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes and that it has no intention of developing a weapon. No one, of course, believes that, but the only way short of war to ensure that Iran does not become a nuclear weapons state — a development everyone agrees would have catastrophic consequences for regional and global security — is for the international community to forge a consensus that is as determined to stop Iran's enrichment program as Iran is determined to get a nuke. Judging by the pusillanimous vote in the Security Council this week, the world still has a long way to go on that score.