Commentary Magazine


Stick a Fork in It

The Jan. 16 meeting of the P5+1 ended ingloriously. The U.S. representative said the P5+1, which will confer again by phone this month, remains committed to the “dual track” approach, in which the possibility of sanctions on Iran is part of the “pressure track.” Western media uniformly characterize the meeting’s outcome as indecisive; but although Russia’s envoy made no definitive pronouncements, the headline at state-owned media outlet RIA Novosti was categorical: “Iran Six decides [sic] against new sanctions on Tehran.”

China, meanwhile, created impressive diplomatic theater by shifting veteran P5+1 negotiator He Yafei to a new post just before the Jan. 16 meeting, sending a low-ranking functionary in his stead and failing to provide contact information for Mr. He’s replacement. According to the UK Times, the P5+1 negotiators don’t know whom to contact in Beijing to schedule the phone conversation proposed for later this month.  The Washington Post reports that “diplomats said they did not know China’s motive” for these measures, but it cites the diplomats’ speculating — with straight faces, as far as we know — that “it might be to illustrate Beijing’s resistance to punishing Iran with more sanctions or dismay at U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.” China’s obstructionist behavior effectively ended any hope for progress on Saturday.

This meeting, of course, was the threat hanging over Iran if it elected not to comply with President Obama’s Dec. 31 deadline. As Rick Richman pointed out last week, Obama’s State Department was already soft-peddling the deadline in mid-December, an approach unlikely to impress Iran with our seriousness. In fairness, however, making such an impression would require overcoming the relentless countersignals coming from our negotiating partners, whose businesses have spent recent months deepening their commercial ties with Iran. Whether it’s France’s Total SA bidding with China to develop Iranian gas fields or German port operator HPC contracting to manage the container port in Iran’s Bandar Abbas complex, our P5+1 partners are engaging themselves to make a lot of money from precisely the commercial activities we would have to sanction to affect Iran’s nuclear aspirations.

Recent summaries like the ones here and here recount the many ways in which commerce is outrunning the political sentiment for sanctions. That sentiment is by no means strong or unified to begin with: Russia has been extraordinarily consistent in its position that there’s no evidence Iran is even pursuing nuclear weapons. Vladimir Putin reiterated that position on Jan. 7 after two previous Russian assertions to the same effect in December (here and here). Indeed, Putin said it in 2008, 2007, and 2005, a record we have heroically disregarded in our eagerness to negotiate alongside Moscow.

Obama’s effort, launched in September with the dramatic revelation about the nuclear site near Qom, is done. On assuming the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council on Jan. 5, China announced that sanctions against Iran will not be on the council’s agenda for January — a promise more credible than Obama’s December deadline. Either we change the pace of our diplomacy right now, or the nations concerned will conclude that U.S. diplomacy is irrelevant. Procrastination at this point means certain failure.