Iran, the Post-American World, and the Security Council’s Looming Legitimacy Crisis

The unfolding drama of the Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal and the Obama Administration’s reactive push to move a draft sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council will have profound effects on the character of international relations for years to come.  At least two such effects warrant particular attention.

First, for those in official Washington or anywhere else who still doubt that the “post-American world” is here, the deal to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) brokered by Brazil and Turkey should serve as a blaring wake-up call.  As we noted earlier, two rising economic powers from what we used to call the “Third World” have now asserted decisive political influence on a high-profile international security issue.  And, in doing so, they have signaled that Washington can no longer unilaterally define terms for managing such issues.  As a consequence, President Obama’s most serious foreign policy challenge — repairing America’s image as a global leader — just got more daunting.

Second, by answering Brazil and Turkey’s extraordinary diplomatic effort with an arrogant assertion of the P-5’s power to demand the rapid imposition of new sanctions on Iran and reinstating a demand that Iran must suspend enrichment to avoid new sanctions, the Obama Administration is following a course that could inflict serious damage not only on America’s global standing, but also on the legitimacy of the Security Council itself.

As we noted previously, getting P-5 agreement on a substantially watered down and incomplete draft resolution is not the same as ensuring the requisite nine affirmative votes for it.  But, even if Washington is able to ram new sanctions through a deeply divided Council, that course carries huge long-term risks.  Already, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan is questioning the Council’s “credibility” to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue.  If Washington torpedoes the new nuclear deal before it can be tested, expect Turkey, Brazil, and others to intensify this sort of challenge to the Council’s legitimacy — with support not just from Iran but from a broad range of “non-aligned” countries.

The Obama Administration has only itself to blame for this situation, because it has approached — and is still approaching — the Iranian nuclear issue with unilateral hubris worthy of George W. Bush.  The Administration has continued to insist that Iran cannot indigenously enrich uranium, even as part of a broader nuclear deal.  It took what should have been a straightforward technical discussion on refueling the TRR — a thoroughly safeguarded facility in the middle of Tehran that produces medical isotopes — and turned it into a highly politicized effort to exchange most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium for promises of new fuel at some unspecified point in the future.  Washington then demanded that other countries unquestioningly support these positions.

When rising powers like Brazil, Turkey, and China were reluctant to go along, the Administration thought it could browbeat them into submission.  Speaking “privately,” Administration officials questioned whether the presumed ambitions of Brazilian President Lula — who leaves office in December — to become the first non-American World Bank president or the next UN secretary general could be realized if he antagonizes Washington over Iran.  Last week, Secretary of State Clinton publicly ridiculed Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s efforts to mediate a nuclear compromise.  And U.S. officials told Chinese counterparts that, if Beijing does not support tough new sanctions against Iran, Washington would not be able to restrain Israeli military action, putting China’s energy supplies at risk.

But these rising powers were not prepared to be browbeaten.  For Brazil — which gave up its own nuclear weapons program but insists on continuing uranium enrichment — the idea that Washington could unilaterally redefine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regarding enrichment was especially odious.  For Turkey, under a popular, democratically elected Islamist government, the idea that Iran’s nuclear program would be treated differently because Iran is governed by Islamists was equally unacceptable.  China has longstanding objections to international sanctions and has consistently advocated diplomacy as the best way to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue.

The Obama Administration insisted that the proposal to refuel the TRR advanced in October by the IAEA’s former Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, be treated as a non-negotiable, “take it or leave it” proposition.  Last month, though, Baradei himself said the proposal should not be treated this way.  Since last October, Iran has consistently said that it accepted in principle the idea of a “swap” to refuel the TRR, but wanted to negotiate the specific terms of a deal.  So, as the Administration made itself diplomatically irrelevant, Brazil and Turkey set out on their own to broker a compromise.

The Brazilian-Turkish deal makes explicit what the October proposal obfuscated: Iran has the right to enrich uranium on its territory.  Realistically, the chances that Iran would ever surrender its enrichment program are now virtually nil.  But the Obama Administration — like its predecessor — refuses to make the shift from working quixotically to stop the unstoppable to negotiating rigorous verification measures for Iran’s enrichment facilities to ensure they are not producing weapons-grade fissile material.  Now, others have stepped into the breach and redefined the Iranian nuclear issue for the Administration.

The new nuclear deal also undermines claims of the Obama Administration — which, like its predecessors, maintains no diplomatic presence in Iran and has had extremely limited contact with Iranian officials — to a monopoly on sound judgments about Iranian decision-making and policy.  For months, Administration officials — and most U.S.-based Iran analysts — have asserted that the Islamic Republic is too internally conflicted to have a coherent international strategy or make important decisions.  Senior Brazilian, Chinese, and Turkish officials who have invested significant amounts of time in substantive discussions with Iranian counterparts argued to Washington for months that a nuclear deal was possible.  But Secretary Clinton and others in the Obama Administration thought they knew better — and said so publicly.

In fact, Iran has worked purposefully — dare we say strategically — to cultivate relations with important rising powers, like Brazil and Turkey, as well as China.  And, this week, Tehran showed that it can take major decisions.  Can the same things be said of the Obama Administration?

President Obama, who came to office professing a new U.S. approach to international engagement, allowed himself to be upstaged by new powers because he has been unwilling to match his rhetoric with truly innovative diplomacy that takes real notice of other countries’ interests.  If he does not close this gap, America’s global leadership will continue to decline.  And, the institutional architecture for global governance in the 21st century — to which Obama has professed rhetorical support — will be put at risk.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was published in The Race for Iran on 20 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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