- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

The sudden decision by Russia and China to allow Iran’s nuclear weapons program to be brought before the U.N. Security Council should caution American officials about the old saw of being careful about what they wish for.

It is doubtful either Moscow or Beijing have had any change of heart about their support for the Tehran regime. Moscow favors having Tehran ship uranium to Russia, where it would be enriched and then returned to Iran for use in its nuclear reactors. This would defuse the current crisis, but it would not end the long-term threat. It would legitimize Iran’s possession of enriched uranium, handing it a diplomatic victory that would validate its claimed “right” to a nuclear program.

The day before Iran removed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seals at its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, its Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari met with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in Beijing. The official Chinese statement was “Zhang reiterated the principled position of the Chinese side on properly settling the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomatic negotiation. Safari briefed Zhang about the views and considerations of the Iranian side in this respect.” In other words, Tehran cleared its action with Beijing.

And on Jan. 26, Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, arrived in Beijing to coordinate diplomatic strategy in advance of China’s alleged turnaround.

The Jan. 30 statement iby China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union delays any Security Council action until after the IAEA reports in March. China takes the chair of the Security Council in April. The statement held the powers to “work for a diplomatic solution to the Iran problem.”

At the “emergency” IAEA meeting Feb. 2, Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei confirmed “everyone agrees diplomacy is the only path.” He also said this was “not a crisis” and that the Russian plan was “very attractive.”

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said taking the issue to the Security Council does not mean sanctions will be imposed. Forty percent of Iran’s trade is with the EU, so the Europeans are eager for compromise.

China has a growing economic stake in Iran, from which it imports 14 percent of its oil. Beijing’ state-run oil companies are investing nearly $100 billion in developing Iranian oil and natural gas fields. It is also building major infrastructure projects in Iran (subways, roads, port facilities), and like Russia, selling Tehran various weapons, including missile systems. Iran is a growing market for Chinese goods, which help pay for oil.

Russia is building Tehran’s nuclear reactors, and is also interested in oil and gas projects. There have also been overtures to Iran to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the main objective of which is to prevent the U.S.-NATO presence in Afghanistan from spreading Western influence in Central Asia.

Washington sees the U.N. as a vehicle for action. Beijing, however, sees the U.N. as a vehicle for blocking Washington. In its white paper “China’s Peaceful Development Road” last December, Beijing states “The international community should oppose unilateralism … and make the U.N. and its Security Council play a more active role in international affairs.”

Since the Iraq debate at the United Nations the term “unilateralism” has been code for any U.S. initiative. The Bush administration failed to win a Security Council majority to back its decision to use force against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Moscow and China did not even have to use their vetoes: The U.S. dropped its call for a vote when it realized it would lose.

In 2003, the United States took its Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to the Security Council in an attempt to expand international law against weapons of mass destruction. Resolution 1540 was adopted unanimously in April, 2004, but rewritten to corral the PSI, not empower it.

The operative sections refers only to “nonstate actors” and “illicit trafficking” in WMD, thus providing no foundation for acting against national governments.

One can easily imagine a similar outcome, with the Security Council passing a “compromise” measure that would serve mainly to prevent action by the U.S. against Iran. The PSI and Iraq campaigns have continued without U.N. approval because of their importance to U.S. security. However, in the face of domestic political opposition to new military action, as well as budget constraints and deployment problems, undoubtedly many even within the Bush administration would welcome an excuse to do nothing about Iran.

Pulling troops out of the region does not strengthen the U.S. negotiating position nor enhance its military options.

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