Sanctions to Gain Time

The United Nations Security Council is discussing a draft resolution this week that to a small extent tightens economic sanctions against Iran.

The United Nations Security Council is discussing a draft resolution this week that to a small extent tightens economic sanctions against Iran. There will be an expansion of the list of institutions and individuals with whom business is prohibited because of their involvement in Iran's nuclear program, but implementation of the decision depends on the goodwill of individual UN members. Thus it is clear from the outset that the agreement of the five permanent members of the Security Council - and with them Germany, a member of the steering committee on this issue - to this draft does reflect an international willingness to cooperate in the face of the Iranian atom, but only because of the weakness of the sanctions.

At most, the activity at the UN, which is based on a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that is more critical than in the past, is signaling that the international community is still sticking to its declared intention not to accept Iran's efforts toward nuclear weaponry. However, since the date for obtaining such weaponry, according to American intelligence, is estimated at the middle of the first half of the next decade, that is to say not before 2012, there is no panic here nor is there determination. The Israeli assessment is more skeptical and is concerned about an Iranian atom as soon as the end of next year.

In these circumstances, the most important development in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program is intra-American. This effort was severely damaged toward the end of 2007, with the publication of the intelligence estimate that gave positive prominence to one of the three dimensions of Iran's nuclearization and not to the most important one: nuclear weapon design, which American intelligence believes was suspended in 2003 and no proof has been found of its renewal. Since the publication of the intelligence assessment, and the gleeful reactions to it in Tehran, they have come to their senses in Washington and are trying to state things precisely. In appearances in Congress and in the media this month, it has been stressed repeatedly that the important dimensions are in fact the other two of the three: the production of fissionable material and the development of ground-to-ground missiles that are intended to carry the warhead.

What has happened at the Security Council this week is, in effect, an element in the bridge over 2008. United States President George W. Bush is perceived as too weak, at home, for a military move against Iran without the support of the Democratic Party and at a time when the involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is stretching the Pentagon's resources to the limit. The presidential election race is overshadowing Bush's last months in office. The standard-bearer for the Republican Party, Senator John McCain of Arizona, is partner to Bush's belligerent stance against a nuclear Iran. The Democrats have not yet stabilized around a candidate and only in the duel between the candidates of the two parties this fall will there be an airing of the differences of opinion on foreign affairs and security issues, among them a nuclear Iran. The mission, then, is to get to the next administration with a reasonable opening position in the international arena, in the shape of resolutions on sanctions.

This is not a lot, but it is not realistic to expect the world to embark now on a war for which, in its opinion, the time is not yet ripe. From Israel's perspective, this is not heartening news. Its hope that international elements will deal with the Iranian atom for their own sake and spare Israel difficult decisions is liable to turn out to have been an illusion.