UN-Iran discussion mirrors Iraq debate

Some experts warn that the US may act independently if the UN Security Council takes too long on Iran.

As the United Nations Security Council wrestles with how to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, discussion at UN headquarters is at times as much about the council's effectiveness and America's role in the international community as it is about Iran.

Sound vaguely familiar?

Three years after the Bush administration pressed the Security Council to act on Iraq's weapons programs or face independent US action against the Baghdad regime, the UN is witnessing a strikingly similar conversation. Moreover, some experts warn that dallying by the council could prompt the US to eventually act outside the UN.

"Déjà vu," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of the current standoff. He was Russia's UN ambassador during the Iraq debate.

"If that is déjà vu, so be it," responded US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, who says the Iran case is about getting a country to comply with its international obligations.

While some key actors in the current saga have changed - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has replaced Saddam Hussein as international rogue; China and Russia, not France, are now the burr under America's saddle - much of the plot remains the same. The US complains about some council members backing down from commitments to concerted international action and warns of the council's irrelevance if it can't force Tehran to back down. Others, like China, vaunt council unity but say action at this stage should be elsewhere - in this case, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In another parallel with Iraq, the US accuses Iran of using the delays in international action to make crucial progress towards weapons development.

"This is a test for the Security Council: Can it take up an issue like [Iran] and try to be tough?" says one US official with close knowledge of the deliberations. "It's really the same message point of Iraq - whether the UN is able to enforce its own rules and regulations."

As of Wednesday morning, the Security Council appeared to be making progress on a draft statement that would outline Iran's violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - the next step in what has proved to be a long and still unfolding diplomatic journey. In the draft, proposed by France and Britain, the council would not lay down sanctions and instead inform Iran how it can return to compliance with international law. The draft would direct the IAEA to report back to the council on Iran's compliance. When the IAEA should report back remains one of the contentious points. Further meetings were scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

Yet even as debate continues, some experts said the apparent difficulties in lining up behind even this rather mild rebuke suggests the council is still laboring with issues reminiscent of the Iraq debate.

"The negotiations over Iran are causing a distinct sense of déjà vu, not least among those who said at the time of the Iraq debate that it was the final chance for the Security Council to prove its worth," says Nile Gardiner, a specialist in the UN's role in international affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"Frustration, particularly in Washington, over the UN system has only built up," he adds, "so the Iran debate is going to be hugely important for how the US deals with the Security Council - or whether it prefers to bypass it altogether in the future."

So far, the US is officially expressing confidence in the council's ability to unite behind an action plan on Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling in Indonesia, said Tuesday she remains confident the council will "find an appropriate vehicle for expressing the international community's solidarity."

But Mr. Bolton was scheduled to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, a venue where US frustrations were likely to surface, some observers say. That is especially true in the wake of a 170-4 vote Wednesday to create a new Human Rights Council to replace the discredited UN Human Rights Commission. The US opposed the body, arguing that the criteria for council membership won't be tough enough.

For some experts, US rejection of the new Human Rights Council only adds to the sense among some countries that America is still acting as it did on Iraq.

"On the human rights [council] and increasingly on Iran the US is coming across as 'It's our way or the highway,' " says Lawrence Korb, a foreign policy analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

"There's a sense the administration would love to do something more muscular on Iran, like they did in Iraq, but that what's stopping them is a lack of any good options," he adds. "That doesn't raise a lot of confidence that the US has really changed and is now set on working with the international community."

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