There was a muffled cheer from Foggy Bottom last week, when the IAEA Board of Governors voted to refer Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council.
According to the striped-pants crowd, the vote was proof that diplomacy could play a useful role in resolving the nuclear crisis. Why, even Russia and China went along with the proposal, with only Syria and Venezuela voting "no."
Fast forward to today. Russia's foreign minister has warned against "threatening" Iran over its nuclear program. Speaking in Athens, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for talks to continue:
"I think that at the current stage, it is important not to make guesses about what will happen and even more important not to make threats," Lavrov said.
The Russian officials comments came in response to a quote from U.S. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld. In an interview with a German paper, Rumsfeld said that all options--including military force--were on the table with Iran.
The Russians still believe that Iran can be persuaded to reach some sort of compromise on its nuclear program. Talks will be held in Moscow on February 16th, on a Russian proposal to shift Iran's uranium enrichment work to Russian soil. That would (supposedly) allow greater oversight by the IAEA and prevent enrichment work aimed at producing an Iranian nuclear bomb.
As we have noted before, there are a couple of major problems with this approach. First, it fails to address the "heavy water" leg of Iran's nuclear development program. Even if Tehran shifts enrichment work to a Russian facility, it can continue work on its heavy water reactor, which could yield a plutonium-based bomb within 10 years.
Secondly, the Russian plan doesn't account for the likely existence of covert Iranian facilities, which could continue enrichment and weapons development efforts in Iran. That's exactly what happened in North Korea after the "agreed to framework" of 1994. Inspectors kept watching the idle facility at Yongbyong, while the actual work took place at a secret facility in North Korea.
Lavrov's comments underscore the difficulty associated with getting any kind of meaningful sanctions or actions out of the UN. And, if the military option is removed from the table, the task becomes virtually impossible.