One of the major criticisms of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's foreign policy over the past few months concerned his contribution to inadvertently creating consensus among the major powers in the UN Security Council over his country's nuclear programme.
Before the recent escalation, Russia and China in particular were in total disagreement with the US on how to deal with Iran's nuclear programme. However, poor Iranian performance in dealing with the nuclear issue has encouraged Washington and Moscow to get over their differences and establish a united front against Iran's nuclear policies. US-Russian rapprochement is likely to result in a new UN Security Council resolution that could rock the Iranian regime, as US National Security Advisor James Jones put it last week in a televised interview.
Previous Iranian mistakes have resulted in a couple of resolutions (1737 and 1747) that almost suffocated Iran. These resolutions would not have been possible without co-ordinated US-Russian efforts in the UN Security Council. Ahmadinejad's policy, which many believe reflects the rising influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps inside Iran, seems to be encouraging even China to join efforts in the Security Council to penalise Tehran for "defying" the major powers.
Earlier this month, immediately after Iran announced that it would step up uranium enrichment to 20 per cent, the US joined with several European allies in a drive to enlist Russian and Chinese support to apply new pressure on Iran to halt its "suspected" nuclear activities. The Obama administration seems to have made significant progress in that regard. Russia seems today much closer to the western position than ever before and this would not have been possible without Iranian mistakes.
Since the ascendance of Ahmadinejad to power in August 2005, Iran has, wittingly or unwittingly, alienated Moscow. Iran has taken many steps that justify this change of heart by the Russian government. The US effort to produce a unified declaration by the permanent members of the Security Council begun in early September, but only started to produce results this month after a series of incendiary comments by Iranian leaders.
The Russians have moved closer to the American view, in part because Iran rebuffed a compromise proposal to swap enriched uranium for nuclear fuel with the assistance of both Russia and France. Last January, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it did not accept the terms of the deal agreed in October by Iran, the IAEA and the P5+1 — the US, Russia, China, UK and France plus Germany. This refusal made it easier for the Obama administration to persuade the Russians to endorse the conclusion that Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. The Russians believe, according to one Russian diplomat quoted by the New York Times, that "they put their proposal out there, and it's unceremoniously swept aside". President Dmitri Medvedev is "feeling angry", the diplomat said. The last straw came when an effort by a Russian envoy to persuade Iran not to take any further steps, such as stepping up uranium enrichment, was ignored.
These Iranian policies constituted an invitation for the Russians to join the efforts of the Americans, the British and the French to increase the pressure on Tehran to halt its nuclear activities. A declaration on Iran by these countries would carry enormous weight because they are the major nuclear powers and are permanent members of the UN Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions and legalise military actions. This seems closer to materialising today than ever before.
After alienating Russia, Iran seems to be counting on China's opposition to any new round of sanctions. However, history tells us that the major powers' interests win out. Last week, in interviews on the Sunday morning news shows in the US, Vice President Joseph Biden and National Security Advisor Jim Jones both suggested that they expected China would support a new UN Security Council resolution on Iran. Experts believe that if the Obama administration cancels its latest arms deal with Taiwan, which angered Beijing, China would drop its opposition to tougher sanctions against Iran. Some have suggested that even if the arms deal with Taiwan is not cancelled, China will not go so far as to risk a confrontation with the US by using its veto in the Security Council.
Iran can, indeed, challenge US policies in the region — but it cannot afford a confrontation with the Security Council (i.e., the collective will of the major powers). This would be suicidal. Iran should consider the consequences of its policies before it is too late.
Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations at Damascus University's Faculty of Political Science and Media in Syria.