If there was already a growing consensus that most of the international community was prepared to live with a nuclear Iran, the publication of a new report this week from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) detailing Tehran’s progress toward a military application of nuclear power has done nothing to overturn it. Though the IAEA report has made it a bit more difficult for Iran apologists to argue that their pursuit of nukes is entirely peaceful, the prospects for multilateral action on the issue are perhaps even less likely than before.
Far from shaming Russia and China into backing off their opposition to serious sanctions on Iran, let alone the use of force, the report appears to have redoubled Moscow’s determination to thwart American policy on the issue. The Putin regime’s public rebuke of the report and U.S. efforts to use it to ramp up support for more sanctions has in effect pre-empted any diplomatic solution to the world’s Iranian nuclear dilemma. Iran’s truculent response to the IAEA report is more than just the usual bravado from the ayatollahs. Though the Obama administration has stated that it is determined to pursue tougher sanctions, the Iranians are laughing at this vow because they know that Russia’s backing gives them blanket immunity from any UN resolution.
The Russians had indicated prior to the report’s release that they would oppose any further sanctions on Iran but their dismissal of the substantive IAEA report and blunt refusal to revisit the question of sanctions has left President Obama with few options. Obama worked hard to please Russia on a number of issues including the placement of anti-missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland in order to gain their support on Iran. But, as is generally the case with appeasement, it failed. Russia has as much to fear from a nuclear Iran as anyone else, but Putin seems to think that the consequences of a successful U.S.-led sanctions effort that would bring Iran to its knees would be a greater blow to his desire to reassert Moscow’s influence than anything Iran could do.
Though we are continuing to hear noises out of Washington about a diplomatic campaign aimed at mobilizing international support for getting tough with Iran, the failure of such an effort is now a foregone conclusion. Since it is doubtful that anyone in Tehran agrees with Jeffrey Goldberg that Obama is likely to launch a military strike on Iran either with or without Israeli participation, one can only conclude that the ayatollahs now think their path to a bomb and regional hegemony is clearer than ever.
The consequences of this turn of events are serious for all concerned.
Rather than making war over Iran less likely, the Russian stonewall on sanctions has actually increased the chances of violence. That’s not just because Putin appears to have left both Obama and Israel little choice in the matter. The danger comes not only from the still remote possibility of either an American or Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear targets. Russia’s move may also cause the Iranians to overestimate their strength. Though most observers dismiss Iran’s threats against the U.S., Israel and the West as just empty talk, wars are more often caused by a nation’s miscalculations about its strength than anything else. With terrorist proxies in place on both the Jewish state’s northern and southern borders, Iran may think it not only has the power to deter a pre-emptive strike from the Jewish state but feel emboldened to incite violence on its own in order to distract the Israelis.
But even if rationality on this point prevails in Tehran, the stage is now set for Iran to proceed unhindered to nuclear status. If, as now seems inevitable, the IAEA report is the prelude to diplomatic paralysis rather than international action on Iran, we may be moving forward to the next stage of the crisis in which the ayatollah’s belief in Obama’s weakness will be put to the test.