While it’s trite to say that international legal norms and institutions are only as strong as major international players allow, Iran’s nuclear program is a painfully clear example of this principle at work. For Iran sanctions to carry the United Nations’ imprimatur and its concomitant influence, the United States must deal with the practical reality of winning Russian and Chinese support.
Winning the support of these two major players is not an easy task, and it involves factors that go beyond the immediate scope of Iran sanctions. The Obama Administration’s decision to reverse the Bush policy of missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic comes with the hope that Russia will respond in kind. On one hand, this gesture (at least ostensibly) reduces any physical threat to Russia, meeting the expressed concern of its government. On the other hand, some analysts suggest that Russia’s concern is more for outward appearances, and a means of gaining as much American concession as possible. (In the following link, CFR scholar James M. Lindsay describes the Bush approach as more of a “useful whipping boy for Moscow rather than a genuine strategic threat”: http://www.cfr.org/publication/20224/obamas_missile_shield_revision.html)
As major players deal with these and other practical concerns behind implementing sanctions, concerns over the pace of Iranian nuclear development have been further spurred by new information about a nuclear facility outside of Qom. News of the Qom site has fueled calls from American political leaders for quick implementation of sanctions, the possibility of military strikes, and in some cases, regime change. (Youtube clip of Sen. McCain clarifying his position on regime change: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cu74ak5g38)
The Iranian regime claims that this site, though too small for civilian purposes, has violated no provision of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. More specifically, Iran has asserted that its eventual disclosure of the Qom site was in compliance with an NPT provision requiring notification of such a site within 180 days of its establishment. Although it’s possible that Iran has complied with this provision, neither this nor the 2003 cessation of its nuclear weapons program (according to the November 2007 US NIE) change the fact that Iran has continued to develop the capability for the production of fissile material. This existing capability and the difficulties of treaty enforcement suggest weaknesses in the NPT. (For the full text of the NPT, see the following link: http://www.un.org/events/npt2005/npttreaty.html)
What happens if the United States is successful in leading the UN Security Council to implement sanctions? This first step is a heavy task, and may only continue the incomplete effects of sanctions against the Islamic Republic. If recent history is any indicator, political change is not a fait accompli under economic sanctions. On that note, my colleague Mora Namdar will provide some commentary on the human dimension of this issue, and how popular will in the US and in Iran may lend toward international action. Also, early next week, we’ll add a more in-depth post on the provisions of the NPT and how they relate to the Iranian nuclear issue.