Friday, November 27, 2009

The Trouble with Soft Diplomacy: Endless Resolutions on Iran, No Resolution of the Issues

By Barry Rubin

In its own view, the Obama Administration has won a considerable foreign policy victory in the International Atomic Energy Agency vote to condemn Iran’s nuclear program. Winning such triumphs is the whole goal of a patient policy by the Obama Administration to cultivate wide support for criticizing Iran. The problem is that this is not the same thing as doing something about Iran.

The key development is that only three countries—Cuba, Venezuela, and Malaysia—supported Iran. China and Russia backed the U.S. position. It is being implied that this signals the possibility that they might support material sanctions against Tehran.

But that’s not true and thinking otherwise shows a real structural failure in how even supposed experts nowadays think about international affair. Voting for a resolution is a substitute for taking action, a fact that might prove to be the bane of the Obama Administration.

In addition, while the resolution is being touted as tough, it I based on an incontrovertible set of simple facts. Iran was criticized for two things: continuing to defy the previous UN resolutions by enriching uranium and building a secret nuclear facility.

It’s like passing a resolution to criticize, rather than arrest, someone you just saw pump a half-dozen bullets into a murder victim and then being pleased that it was nearly unanimous.

What’s really significant is that it is now clear the United States, having missed its September deadline for raising sanctions, is now going to miss the December deadline as well. The question is whether that process will even have begun before 2009 ends.

Iranian delegate Ali Asghar Soltanieh, in his response, told us everything we need to know about Tehran’s position and future developments:

"Neither resolutions of the board of governors nor those of the United Nations Security Council...neither sanctions nor the threat of military attacks can interrupt peaceful nuclear activities in Iran, [not for] even a second."

I believe him, except for the “peaceful nuclear activities” part. But guess what? This supposedly tough resolution doesn’t exactly contradict that point. It only expresses "serious concern" that Iran's refusal to cooperate with inspections means "the possibility of military

dimensions to Iran's nuclear program" cannot be excluded.

So that’s it. In November 2009 the United States after almost a year of effort by the Obama Administration persuaded a UN to vote that Iran might be developing nuclear weapons but it can’t tell and insists that Iran abide by promises it made years ago.

What makes this important enough for you to be reading about at this moment is that it is a model for the kind of multilateral, soft diplomacy that is now in fashion. Indeed, the U.S. government has not even announced yet that Iran is obviously refusing to make a deal. Statements by Western countries indicated that Tehran was being given one more chance for the one hundredth time.

At some point in the not-distant future, the idea is that President Obama will make one of those, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special message from the president of the United States” moments that begin, “My fellow citizens…” In other words, he springs into decisive real action and does something tough.

One is beginning to suspect that this moment will never come on any international issue.

As a British officer said after the Battle of Bunker Hill in the American Revolution, one more victory like this and there may be no one left to report it. After a certain point, someone who believes that soft power is sufficient must be soft in the head.

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