WASHINGTON (Jan. 17)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s strategy of trying to turn Israel and the Jewish people into scapegoats is helping to get his country into international hot water. A Western alliance came one step closer on Monday to nudging Russia and China — which have resisted previous efforts to punish Iran for its nuclear program — into referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.
At a special conference in London to address the issue, Russia and China joined an unequivocal call on Iran to shut down its nuclear program. While both Russia and China warned that sanctions were premature, they didn’t block an emergency session of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, called for next month to consider a referral to the Security Council.
Ahmadinejad’s relentless targeting of Israel has proven central in Iran’s gathering isolation, though the principal factor fueling the tide against Iran has been its brazen defiance of entreaties to slow down its nuclear program.
Late last week, President Bush connected Ahmadinejad’s threat against Israel and the broader nuclear threat posed by Iran.
“The current president of Iran has announced that the destruction of Israel is an important part of their agenda, and that’s unacceptable,” Bush said last Friday after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “And the development of a nuclear weapon, it seems like to me, would make them a step closer to achieving that objective.”
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful. The West believes it is close to manufacturing a nuclear bomb.
Israel has been warning for more than a decade that Iran and its nuclear ambitions pose the gravest threat to stability in the Middle East, but concern about the prospect of an Iranian bomb only began gaining traction after Ahmadinejad’s election last summer.
That’s when Iran declared its intention to roll back some of the inspections regime that had kept a lid on western worries about Iran’s plan to build a bomb. Those concerns came to a head when Iran removed U.N. seals on some of its uranium enrichment facilities last week.
Complementing the defiance were Ahmadinejad’s declarations that Israel should be “wiped out” and his denial of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust denial especially helped end European hopes that Iran could be swayed by diplomacy and promises of assistance in developing a peaceful nuclear capacity.
“To us Germans, too, it is totally unacceptable what Iran has said recently, for example, as regards the questioning the right of existence of Israel, the statements that were made with relevance to the Holocaust,” Merkel said at her meeting with Bush. “And it’s essential, we feel, that the E.U.-3 together with the United States take a common position here, become active, that we try to persuade as many other countries as possible to join themselves to us.”
The E.U.-3 refers to Germany, Britain and France, the three major European powers negotiating with Iran on behalf of the European Union.
The E.U.-3 despaired of Iran in September, after an unusually tough report from the IAEA accused the Islamic Republic of non-compliance with a two-year-old freeze on its nuclear program and of concealing some of its nuclear activity.
The Bush administration wanted Iran immediately referred to the Security Council, as did Israel, much of the U.S. Congress, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. But it relented in the face of a strategy proposed by the E.U.-3, which wanted to address the likelihood that China and Russia would exercise vetoes at the Security Council.
Both nations do a lot of energy-related business with Iran. Russia has a major stake in building Iran’s nuclear reactor, and China gets most of its oil from Iran. Both nations also traditionally resent international monitoring of sovereign nuclear programs.
The E.U.-3 strategy was to bring on Russia as a negotiating partner. Eager to restore the international prestige that collapsed with the Soviet empire, Russia agreed to new terms: Iran could run a nuclear program as long as the final stages of uranium enrichment were left to Russia. That would keep Iran from obtaining weapons grade uranium.
Israel once again played a role when Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli prime minister, lobbied Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week, after Lavrov called to express his concern over the health of comatose Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The strategy appears to have paid off.
“As for Russia, and Germany, and our European partners and the United States, we have very close positions on the Iranian problem,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday after meeting with Merkel in Moscow.
He still urged caution, especially because Iran has threatened to end all cooperation with U.N. inspectors if the matter goes to the Security Council.
China is much less likely to exercise its veto in isolation, and it also might consider the danger of a nuclear Iran so close to China’s predominantly Muslim western provinces.
“China has never wanted, you know, nuclear powers around its country,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “I think China should recognize the devastation that Iran could bring about.”