Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, riled up Washington and Brussels earlier this month by declaring that they shouldn’t try to stop Iran from enriching uranium. The United Nations, prodded by the West, had imposed two sets of sanctions on Tehran for continuing enrichment in defiance of a Security Council resolution passed last July. The second set of sanctions was enacted this March, but Tehran has given no indication that it will halt its nuclear program. In response, Western diplomats are now considering a third set of sanctions. (COMMENTARY’s editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz has weighed in on this predicament, as well.)
ElBaradei stated that the UN demand to halt enrichment “has been superseded by events”—the Iranians have already obtained the necessary technology. The international community, he suggested, should engage the Iranians “in a comprehensive dialogue.” ElBaradei also suggested that Tehran be permitted to keep some elements of an enrichment program.
There are any number of fundamental objections to these comments. The chief of the UN’s nuclear watchdog group should not publicly undermine the acts of the world body. ElBaradei may have been handed humanity’s most coveted award, the Nobel Peace Prize, but he still has an obligation to support the Security Council.
Moreover, his suggested approach—“dialogue”—has been tried since 2002, when Iranian dissidents first disclosed the existence of Tehran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak. A half-decade of meetings, talks, and discussions has conclusively demonstrated that the country’s leadership is not interested in good faith negotiations. ElBaradei’s comments also establish incentives for destabilizing the world’s arms-control regime. He is effectively saying to nuclearizing rogue states that the IAEA rewards successful defiance of UN prohibitions and sanctions.
In doing so, he also makes war more likely—his comments undercut the force of the UN sanctions. Sanctions may ultimately not disarm the Iranian government, but at this moment they are the last tactic on the road to military action. They are contributing to the already severe woes of the Iranian economy, in the hopes of inducing Ahmadinejad to stop the nuclear program. Western banks are breaking off business ties with the regime, and pressure from Washington is persuading European energy companies to reevaluate investing in Iran.
Sanctions cannot work unless the international community joins together behind them. But Mohamed ElBaradei is standing in the way. He is not giving coercive diplomacy a chance, and if he succeeds in eroding support for still-tougher diplomatic measures, the only way to stop the Iranian mullahs will be war.