Representatives of the "Big Five" nuclear powers (U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France) have agreed to refer Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council. The announcement came after a marathon meeting in London that stretched into the early hours of Tuesday morning. Some observers expressed surprise at the decision; Moscow and Beijing had previously hinted that they might block the referral of Iran, which has extensive trade with both Russia and China.
Tehran's response was both angry and predictable, threatening to resume suspended nuclear activities. Iranian officials also said that the referral would mean the "end of diplomacy" over its nuclear program.
Good news, right? The west is finally acting with some degree of unity and decisiveness, setting the stage for sanctions against Iran and (potentially) military action.
Not so fast. Buried near the bottom of the AP story is this observation from Russia's foreign minister:
"In an apparent attempt to reassure Tehran, Russia underlined that referral to the Security Council will not mean immediate action."
"The Security Council will not make any decisions," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
In other words, Russia is keeping its options open in the Security Council, including (possibly) the veto of measures or resolutions on Iran that Moscow considers too harsh. China could adopt a similar strategy, making it even more difficult for the UN to "punish" Iran (and I use that term advisedly).
Is Iran worried about the threat of UN action? Well, consider this headline, out of the OPEC meeting in Vienna. The Iranian representative has assured OPEC that his country will not curtail oil production, despite the UN referral. Obviously, Tehran can't afford the loss of revenue that would come with an embargo or decrease in production. But on the other hand, if Iran were truly concerned about UN sanctions, they would saying something completely different in Vienna, and actively play their oil card.
Make no mistake: referring Iran's nuclear program to the UN is a positive step. Now, the U.S. and its allies must avoid the mistake of taking a step backward, by letting Tehran's allies derail the process, or agreeing to some form of watered-down punishment.