Impatience on Iran Carries a Price

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 21/01/07):

President Bush once again risks confusing his destiny with that of the nation. His presidency is running out of time. The United States is not. An all-or-nothing confrontation with Iran that has to be resolved before Bush leaves office is an artificial concept that will deepen American problems abroad.

Sports metaphors are dear to Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But their «new thinking» on Iran and Iraq must not be allowed to turn into the political equivalent of pro football’s two-minute drill. The «hurry-up» offense that works beautifully for the New England Patriots at game’s end is far too dangerous when the stakes are war and peace.

With his presidency in its final two years, signs multiply that Bush has lost patience on Iran with the U.N. Security Council, much as he did on Iraq in 2003. While Rice was traveling in the Middle East and Europe last week, American allies were being told that Washington would not seek new and tougher Security Council sanctions against Iran, as has been widely expected.

Iran rejected the largely symbolic sanctions that were adopted by the council on Dec. 23 and vowed to continue its nuclear program. That program will allow Tehran to master within a year or two the technology needed to manufacture atomic bombs, according to Western intelligence agencies. Iran claims it will not develop such weapons.

But Russia’s unexpectedly strong opposition even to weak sanctions adopted only after months of debate has deepened Bush’s growing disillusionment with President Vladimir Putin.

The American leader is determined not to get caught in «a dead end» at the United Nations, according to U.S. officials. Bush is said to feel that Putin went back on personal pledges to support meaningful U.N. action in return for Bush’s committing to diplomatic efforts last June. Bush rarely forgives someone he believes has gone back on promises to him.

Instead of returning to the United Nations for a new resolution, the administration has launched a broad effort to assemble an economic coalition of the willing to confront Iran. Trade, investment and the price of oil are the primary targets Washington chose for this coalition.

The United States wants European Union nations to deny export credits to Iran and to encourage their banks to join a campaign led by the U.S. Treasury to squeeze Iranian financial institutions linked to their government’s support for terrorism in the Middle East. Iran’s poorly managed oil fields are in desperate need of new foreign technology and investment, making Iran vulnerable to this kind of pressure.

The campaign received a big boost last week when it became clear that Saudi Arabia is finally worried enough about Iran to use oil as a weapon against the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Saudi oil minister Ali Nuaimi publicly opposed Iranian calls for production cuts by the OPEC cartel to halt a decline that has taken crude oil from $78 a barrel in July to just above $50 a barrel last week.

The Saudis have enough reserve production capacity to swing OPEC prices up and down at will. Their relatively small population gives them a flexibility in postponing revenue gains that populous Iran lacks. Nuaimi’s pronouncement, although cast as a technical matter that had nothing to do with politics, seemed to give teeth to recent warnings issued in private by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national security adviser, that the kingdom will now respond to Iranian hostility with its own confrontational tactics.

So a broad, sustained campaign of economic sanctions is perhaps the most effective way to bring pressure to bear on an Iranian regime that has failed to deliver on its grandiose promises of prosperity to a restive population.

But it is the Europeans and the Saudis, not the Bush administration, who control the tools of economic pressure that Washington wants wielded. Managing a campaign in which the immediate price will be paid by others will require skill, extensive consultations and enormous patience.

Such a campaign would be undermined by hurry-up tactics built around the American political calendar, or the use of U.S. military force in Iraq intended to serve as a show of force against Iran. Divisions within the Saudi royal family over how to handle Iran also should be handled with care, not bluster, by Washington. A new consensus with Europe on how to proceed must be sought as well.

This will all take time. Bush must guard against a sense of false urgency dictated by his time in office coming to an end. As Charles de Gaulle counseled, history continues even though the graveyard is full of indispensable leaders.