Feeling the Heat?

Everybody talks about the “pressure” Iran is under—but the strain is on the other side.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

“Our patience,” said Edmund Burke in “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” “will achieve more than our force.” Burke’s adage perfectly encapsulates the situation since the IAEA reported Iran for further debate in the U.N. Security Council. But here’s the key question: Does it apply more to Iran or to the international community?

The “force” component is significant. The whole idea of referring the Iranians to the United Nations is based on the assumption that since the Security Council has the means to enforce its decisions, it has more leverage with the Iranians and so more chance to succeed. “If it does take that step [of not complying with the IAEA], I think there will be consequences, and I think Iran now understands that that’s going to be the case,” said State Department Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Robert Josef in a briefing Monday. And what could those “consequences” be, if not the use of the council’s diplomatic might?

The “patience” component is also important. The agreement between the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany gives the Iranians another month before action can be taken by the United Nations. Last week, the representatives of these states agreed “that the Security Council should await the Director General’s report to the March meeting of the IAEA Board, which would include a report on the implementation of the February Board’s Resolution, and any Resolution from the March meeting, before deciding to take action to reinforce the authority of the IAEA process.” This will not happen before March 6, but it was this postponement that brought Russia and China on board.

Still, misperceptions now rule the public discourse, the most serious being the assumption that it is the Iranians who are under pressure. “What we tried to do … [is to] bring in other countries to help put pressure on Iran,” said Undersecretary for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns. “Taking the Iranian case to the Security Council,” said Josef, “adds weight, it adds authority, and it adds a new set of tools to bring pressure on Iran, [to] get it to reverse course.”

But was Iran pressured last week? Iran’s leaders don’t seem anxious—and why should they? They can keep dragging their feet for at least a month with no immediate consequences. So far, the Iranians have done exactly what any reasonable decision-maker would do: They have escalatedtheir behavior. After all, they have nothing to lose. If worst comes to worst (for them), they can always change course. Why say uncle now?

“The world will not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons,” said President Bush. This puts the burden of proof on “the world.” Can it work out a formula for U.N. sanctions? Can it carry along both Russia and China to pursue real action against the Iranian regime?

In the last couple of months, U.S. policy was clear but of limited ambition. Washington wanted to persuade its reluctant allies to go to the “next step” and have Iran face the Security Council. On that account it was successful. But getting there—and even then, only a month from now—is just a means, not an end. What’s more, there’s no reason to think that a few words from Vienna will turn Tehran around.

Given how difficult it was to get to this point, imagine how hard it will be to get the other members of the council to move yet another “next step.” And in the meantime, the Iranians can keep running their nuclear program, knowing they have nothing to worry about.

“There is only one thing worse than military action [against Iran],” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., “and that is a nuclear-armed Iran.” But if this possibility is so grave and consequential, then the pressure is clearly on the side of those countries trying to prevent it from happening. Russia and China will have to decide how far they are willing to go; the Europeans will have to decide how important it is for them to stop Iran; the United States will have to decide which strategy it will pursue if the United Nations proves incapable of taking on the task ahead.

And the Iranians? They can sit and wait while the world keeps deliberating. “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia,” Winston Churchill famously said. “Russia is a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma.” As long as the question of Russia—and the rest of the coalition of the unwilling—is unresolved, there’s no reason to look for pressure on the Iranian side. Foggy Bottom is the place to go for that.