Putting Iran on notice

Victories for Bush administration diplomacy are rare these days, and the adoption of a third U.N. Security Council resolution tightening sanctions against Iran is worth celebrating -- even though it probably represents more of a belated act of self-defense by the rest of the council than a triumph of U.S. statecraft. True, the resolution passed Monday isn’t as strong as the U.S. wanted, it took an entire year, and in the short term it won’t stop a determined Iran from making nuclear weapons. Still, it’s an important step in the long-term international campaign to convince Iran’s coolest head -- Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- that the cost to Iran in isolation and lost prestige if it persists with its nuclear program will simply be too high.

Three little-noticed aspects of the U.N. resolution deserve closer scrutiny. First, unlike its two predecessors, Resolution 1803 wasn’t sponsored by the United States. It was a European draft (watered down by the Russians and Chinese), and it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who worked all weekend persuading the four Security Council members who voiced objections on Friday. Monday’s vote was unanimous, and only Indonesia abstained, under intense pressure from its vast Muslim population.

Second, the sanctions are narrow, and that’s smart. They punish two banks, Melli and Saderat, that have been aiding the Iranian nuclear program, and they freeze assets and ban travel by specific individuals who are involved in the program and who have tried to circumvent earlier U.N. sanctions. They also require countries to stop ships or aircraft when there is reasonable cause to believe they’re carrying nuclear contraband to Iran. That’s a useful invitation to catch Iran red-handed, and Washington had better use the authority carefully, as any intelligence failures that result in intercepting innocent shipments will be seized on by Tehran as proof that it’s the victim of a nuclear smear campaign by the Great Satan.

Third, the evidence of nuclear warhead designs found in an Iranian laptop is said to have stiffened the spines of the Russians, Chinese and Europeans, who genuinely fear an Iranian bomb but who aren’t willing to risk war to prevent it. This resolution finally passed in part because President Bush is so weakened by the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, by domestic economic woes and by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Russians, Chinese and Europeans no longer fear that he’d attempt to take advantage of a tougher U.N. stance to justify a military attack on Iran in his waning days in office. If Bush would clench his teeth and stop threatening Iran, perhaps the rest of the world will feel the need to do more to contain it.