Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 17 2006 (IPS) — The United States, which is making little headway in its attempts to impose mandatory U.N. sanctions on Iran, is facing a political dilemma as it comes under increasing pressure to initiate a dialogue with the very country it is trying to punish for its defiant nuclear programme.

The U.S.-inspired proposal for economic and military sanctions on Iran is at a virtual standstill because of reservations by two of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council: Russia and China.

"Both countries have strong economic and military interests in Iran," says an Asian diplomat monitoring developments in the 15-member Security Council. "And so they are determined to protect their interests."

If the United States takes its draft resolution to the Council, it is likely to draw vetoes either from China or Russia – or both. But the White House is not willing to face rejection by the Security Council.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who stopped in Moscow Wednesday en route to Asia, spent about 90 minutes with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And according to reports out of the Russian capital, Bush&#39s discussions "included some exchanges on U.S. efforts to get Russia to join the resolution" against Iran.

After the talks, U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley was quoted as saying the two countries were "still well apart on such sanctions."

The U.S. effort to punish Iran has also been complicated by two other developments: British Prime Minister Tony Blair&#39s call for "a new partnership" with Iran, specifically to use Tehran&#39s influence in curbing the growing insurgency in Iraq.

Secondly, a U.S. study group on Iraq, headed by former U.S. secretary of state James Baker III, is expected to urge the Bush administration to dialogue with both Iran and Syria to resolve the problems in Iraq.

The United States, which is trying to avoid Russian and Chinese vetoes on Iran, exercised its own veto last Saturday to block a Security Council resolution against Israel over its Nov. 8 military attack in the occupied territories, which resulted in the deaths of 19 Palestinian civilians.

Mouin Rabbani, contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report, points out that the Israeli and Iranian cases are in no way comparable.

"Both Russia and China have consented to and even supported Security Council resolutions concerning Iran&#39s nuclear programme that would be unthinkable if Israeli conduct were at issue," Rabbani told IPS.

Rather, Russia and China have opposed initiatives that in their view would either undermine the prospect of a negotiated resolution of the Iranian nuclear file or be exploited by others to legitimise another Middle East war.

Moscow and Beijing "are obviously motivated by self-interest rather than altruism, but the suggestion that they are using their veto power to ensure Iranian impunity – let alone doing so in a manner similar to the United States in the case of Israel – is rather far-fetched," he argued.

Phyllis Bennis, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, told IPS that the Bush administration is facing a set of intersecting crises with few good ways out.

In Iraq, she said, the absolute failure of U.S. policy is becoming increasingly hard even for Bush loyalists to deny, and worse, from their vantage point, the U.S.-backed Iraqi government officials are turning against Washington.

There are few options ("stay the course", "increase troop deployment", and "strengthen the training of Iraqi security forces") that hold out any prospect of improving the situation.

Bennis said that Baker&#39s Iraq Study Group is likely to pay at least lip service to setting a timetable for a partial withdrawal, and in response the White House has announced its own inter-agency team to come up with more palatable proposals. Bush has repeatedly spoken against any timetable for troop withdrawal.

In Iran, the government continues its nuclear enrichment activities, with the United States unable to stop it alone, and unable to garner the requisite Security Council support for hard economic (let alone military) sanctions, said Bennis, author of &#39Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the U.N. Defy the U.S.&#39

At the same time, she pointed out, new pressures, including from Blair in Britain and from voices close to the Baker team, are calling for the United States to engage with Syria and Iran to help solve the Iraqi crisis, carrying with it an inevitably huge loss of face for Bush.

"And in Palestine, the U.S. veto of a dramatically softened Council resolution condemning Israel&#39s mistaken assault in Beit Hanoun that left 19 people dead, including seven children and six women, resulted in such outrage that even Washington&#39s closest Arab allies felt the need to abandon their U.S.-orchestrated economic boycott of the Palestinians," she added.

Rabbani said the U.S. veto of last week&#39s resolution condemning the Israeli killing of 19 Palestinian civilians in Gaza – an attack which according to the leading Israeli human rights organisation B&#39Tselem was "not a defensive action" gone tragically wrong, but rather a probable war crime worthy of "criminal investigation" – is in no way surprising.

On account of what has become a virtually automatic U.S. veto of any Security Council initiative that is even critical of Israel, the Jewish state currently enjoys complete impunity concerning its obligation to respect U.N. resolutions, the U.N. Charter, and international law more generally.

"This phenomena in fact goes beyond Israel&#39s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories: over the summer the Security Council proved incapable of criticising Israel&#39s killing of four U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon on account of American determination to prevent any condemnation of Israel," Rabbani added.

Judging by Blair&#39s Guildhall speech of Nov. 13, he said, the Bush-Blair approach is somewhat different.

"It appears to lay down a number of conditions to Tehran, and only if the Iranians dutifully comply will they be accorded the privilege of assisting in the removal of the Anglo-American coals from the Iraqi fire."

Given Britain&#39s dire disposition in Iraq and Iran&#39s continued ascendancy both within Iraq and the broader Middle East, he said, the idea of London imposing pre-conditions on Tehran for engagement on Iraq is simply laughable.

Bennis says that Bush has no good options either.

"And until the administration is prepared to bring all the troops home and end the occupation of Iraq, AND stop its uncritical economic, military and diplomatic backing for Israel&#39s brutal occupation, AND pull back its warmongering pressures against Iran and reengage diplomatically AND take the lead in implementing its own obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, no cosmetic Study Group approaches are likely to help."


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