The U.N. votes, Iran ignores

The United Nations Security Council at long last voted to impose sanctions on Iran for its continuing pursuit of uranium enrichment in defiance of the international community. The Tehran government immediately dismissed the U.N. move and vowed to step up nuclear activities. The stage is thus set for yet another round of protracted diplomacy, even though the record to date is dismal. Success is possible only if the world speaks with one voice to Iran. That is not happening today.

Suspicions have swirled around Iran’s nuclear ambitions since 2002, when an Iranian group opposed to the Islamic government in Tehran provided information about hidden nuclear programs and facilities. Western nations, in particular America, argued that the programs were developing a bomb, claiming that an oil-rich country like Iran had no need for nuclear energy. Tehran conceded that the programs existed but insisted that its nuclear program was civilian in nature and legal under the terms of its membership in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The dispute has dragged on since then, with Iran slowly curtailing cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. watchdog entrusted with ensuring that nuclear technology is not misused. Despite offers from a troika of European powers to step up political and economic engagement with Iran in exchange for the abandonment of suspect activities and despite slowly increasing U.N. pressure, Iran has stepped up nuclear-related programs, including establishing uranium-enrichment facilities essential to creating the materials for a bomb.

A Security Council resolution has been in the works for months, but differences among the permanent five — Russia and China insisted on softer language — delayed agreement. Consensus was reached last week, and the council on Saturday adopted a resolution that bans the import and export of materials and technology used in uranium enrichment, reprocessing and ballistic missiles. It freezes the assets of 12 Iranians and 10 companies said to be involved in nuclear and ballistic missile programs. A mandatory travel ban on individuals thought to be involved in nuclear activities was dropped; states are now required to “exercise vigilance” over their borders and inform the U.N. when individuals of interest are in their country. The resolution comes under Chapter 7, Article 41, of the U.N. Charter, which makes enforcement mandatory but restricts action to nonmilitary measures.

As always, governments were reluctant to take steps that might hurt them or their financial interests. Russia insisted that the $800-million Bushehr reactor it is building be excluded from the list of prohibited activities. Moscow also made sure that the sanctions apply only to projects begun after the resolution was agreed. As Russia’s U.N. ambassador explained, the measure is designed to give Iran incentives to cooperate, not to punish it.

The sanctions will remain in place — or be stepped up — until IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei can confirm that Iran has suspended uranium enrichment efforts. They will be lifted when Iran complies with the latest and previous U.N. resolutions. Most governments followed up the U.N. vote with a call urging Tehran to comply and end the concerns about its nuclear programs. Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Aso spoke for many saying, “It is Japan’s strong wish that this issue will be resolved peacefully through negotiation. Japan continues to urge Iran to (abide by the resolution and suspend all enrichment-related activities).” True to form, Iran did not.

Instead, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the resolution as “a piece of torn paper,” and said the West would soon regret its “superficial act.” Mr. Ali Larijani, Iran’s nuclear negotiator, said the U.N. resolution only made his country more “decisive in realizing our nuclear aims” and said Iran would step up enrichment activities. Iran’s Parliament voted to alter cooperation with the IAEA, without providing any information about what that means.

Defiance has served Iran well. It is a rallying point for nationalists. Mr. Ahmadinejad knows that Russia and China enjoy seeing U.S. diplomacy blocked. Tehran’s ability to reward supporters with business deals, energy resources and political backing in international forums gives Moscow and Beijing additional incentives to go easy, even if they should be concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Nuclear proliferation is a real danger: Pyongyang and Tehran are closely watching each other’s maneuverings to create opportunities for themselves.

The world can stop the spread of such weapons only if it speaks with one voice to potential proliferators and makes them pay a real price for defiance. That does not look likely and confrontation with Iran appears increasingly possible.