Top diplomats of the world's major powers met in New York on Monday to see if they could agree on whether the UN Security Council should demand that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment and stop building a heavy-water nuclear reactor. They couldn't.
None of the six nations - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the US - apparently disagrees that Iran needs to persuade the world that it's not cheating on its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and seeking to make atomic weapons. The Security Council already "requested" such an effort from Tehran's ruling Islamic clerics. Rather, the question this week was how much to ratchet up the pressure after Iran decided last month to ignore the UN request.
On the table for these high-level talks was a proposal put forth by France and Britain - not the US - to invoke the UN Charter's Chapter 7. That provision is often used by the Security Council to make demands and, sometimes, approve binding actions on UN members states, such as support for peacekeeping missions.
Even if no action is specified in a Chapter 7 resolution, it can start a certain open-ended momentum that compels the UN to follow through with action, or might even allow member states to enforce a demand on their own. It was a Chapter 7 resolution against Iraq that the US used to justify the 2003 invasion.
And that was the rub at Monday's talks - whether the proposed resolution would allow the US and some European allies to steam ahead with tough economic sanctions against Iran or whether it might be used by the US to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Iran's defiance of the UN doesn't make it easy for China and Russia to oppose a Chapter 7 step. France, too, appears fed up with Iran's diplomatic shenanigans during two years of failed talks between Europe and Iran on the nuclear issue.
Up to now, the US has preferred that Europe, and more recently, the UN, take the lead with Iran. A nuclearized Iran, after all, is the world's problem. The US has been patient and persistent in trying to persuade other nations of the Iranian threat.
That tactic has Iran worried. In a blatant attempt to further divide the major powers, Iran's hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sent a long letter to President Bush on Monday, offering talks with the US - but without specifying Iran's nuclear program. The assembled diplomats most likely regarded this last-minute ploy with the same indifference as the US did.
While the US and Iran have much to talk about since their 1979 estrangement - helping Iraq, for one, and ending Iran's support for terrorists - the nuclear issue is clearly an international one. The US can't negotiate for the International Atomic Energy Agency. And Iran's defiance of the Security Council is some- thing the Council itself must act on. If it doesn't, then the UN's reputation as an arbiter for peace will further erode.
Russia and China are right in trying to make sure this resolution isn't an automatic license for a military attack on Iran. Wording can be found to ensure that.
But the US and Europe are already gearing up for economic sanctions on Iran, and may proceed even without UN approval. Better to guide that effort than oppose it.