Let’s stipulate something: it is exceedingly unlikely that a new round of Security Council sanctions–and certainly not the very modest ones being discussed now–will dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Even if the Council were to pass the current draft unanimously and with tears of joy in its collective eye tomorrow, most observers agree that Tehran’s policy wouldn’t change. Given that, what should one make of the diplomatic scheming, maneuvering, and vote-counting at the United Nations? Does the exercise in messy multilateralism have any value? Below, in no particular order, are some theories on that question:
1. No other option: On this view, those concerned about Iran’s nuclear weapons program have no good alternatives. Israel doesn’t have the military wherewithal to do to Iran’s program what it did to Syria’s (and Iraq’s before that). Even a U.S. military strike is not certain to destroy hidden and buried facilities, but it is certain to inflame the region and endanger U.S. and international forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. So even if the chance that sanctions will be effective is vanishingly small, we should pursue them because there’s really nothing else to do.
2. Delay and Complicate: Sanctions may not change the minds of the mullahs but they can at least make the work of cobbling together the components for a nuclear weapons program more difficult. Iran has to worry that imports of necessary parts and technologies will be seized, and the draft resolution gives added authority to those countries able and inclined to sniff around suspicious cargo. In effect, sanctions ratchet up the costs for those involved in helping Tehran get the bomb (this assumes that Iran doesn’t already have everything it needs) and perhaps slows the process down by a matter of months. And those months could be precious. The simmering discontent with the regime could boil over at any point, leading to regime change and (likely) a new nuclear policy. Sometimes, kicking the can down the road is good policy.
3. Great Power Team-Building: In my book on the Security Council, I argue that one of the often overlooked values of the Council is that it helps keep the major powers in touch with each other, aware of each other’s sensitivities and interests, and that it can help drag out potential international crises, giving the big powers time to adjust their expectations and figure out face-saving exit strategies. The perceived need for Council consultation acts like a speed brake on international crises and serves as a check on dangerous unilateralism. Yes, Iran getting a nuclear weapon is undesirable, but ratcheting up big-power tension and possibly even sparking a great-power crisis by ignoring the Council would be much worse. So if consultation helps keep Moscow, Washington, Beijing, London, Paris, Brasilia, Ankara, Mexico City, and Tokyo (to name just the biggest players) on the same page–or at least in the same chapter–that’s valuable. And by respecting the Council process, Washington may make it tougher for other countries inclined to unilateralism to ignore it later.
4. Laying the Moral Groundwork: For those more sanguine about the military option, there could be another value to the process: securing yet another round of sanctions helps show the world that any eventual military strike was the last resort. Flash forward to spring 2011. U.S. bombers have just returned from the first of a series of strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “Four times we went to the UN for sanctions,” President Obama could tell the world as he announces the strikes, “and four times Iran defied the international community.” For some key U.S. allies and for some portion of world public opinion, that effort may make a difference.
5. Dangerous Distraction: The above theories all posit that, however meager the results, Security Council diplomacy has some value. But what if it’s counterproductive? One argument is that the intense focus on process in New York distracts and deludes policymakers. Presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers get so focused on securing a resolution that they simply stop asking themselves whether it does any good. Mesmerized by the gyrations at the UN, they don’t do the hard work of preparing other options. Meanwhile, Tehran presumably inches closer to the bomb. In this view, time is on Iran’s side, and Ahmadinejad is secretly pleased to have the West tangled up in Security Council procedure.