NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer strikes us as one of those prototypical European politicians who have (traditionally) held the alliance's top job. Mr. Scheffer is bright, sophisticated and an adept manager, with years of experience in the Dutch government and its national security apparatus.
But Scheffer is equally calibrated and cautious. Trying to satisfy NATO's 26 member nations is a tall order; it's no wonder the secretary-general seems to wet his finger and test the political winds before making any statement of consequence.
That's why NATO's 11th civilian leader deserves credit for his most recent statement on Iran. Speaking at a conference in France, Mr. Scheffer expressed doubt about the international community's ability to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons:
"I am not positive about the world being able to stop Iran from fulfilling its ambitions," he said during a meeting which was quoted by Reuters.
"It is a major challenge to prevent Iran from continuing to strive to get the bomb," Scheffer said, adding that his concern was "that the Security Council, as we speak, is rather incapable of coming to further conclusions on further sanctions."
And he's exactly right. At the present time, there appears to be no consensus within the Security Council for additional sanctions against Iran, and any move along those lines would almost certainly be blocked by Russia and China. So, anyone expecting decisive action from the U.N. will almost certainly be disappointed (again).
Readers will note that Scheffer did not directly criticize diplomatic efforts by the EU-3 (Britian, Germany and France), who have been talking with Tehran on the nuclear issue for more than three years, with no appreciable results. Reading between the lines of his comments, we wonder if Scheffer is taking an indirect swipe at European diplomatic efforts, which have been as unproductive as the security council.
Being a former diplomat, Scheffer is unlikely to directly criticize fellow envoys--particularly since they represent three important NATO members. But it's easy to see that the NATO Secretary-General is frustrated by the failure of existing efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. While he never advocates military action, Scheffer is reminding the west (in carefully-constructed language) that the current approach on Iran has failed, and it's time to try something else--if anyone has the stomach for it.
Sadly, no one does. As the Bush Administration plays out the string, it remains wedded to the "diplomatic track" of the EU-3. Iran understands that and is quite willing to continue the conversation, while refusing to make any concessions on its nuclear program. The situation in the security council is even more dire; prospects for new, tougher sanctions are virtually nil, and with the growing world financial crisis, Iran has all-but-disappeared as an issue of immediate concern.
Meanwhile, the centrifuges at Natanz keep spinning, and Iranian scientists continue their work on medium and long-range missiles, aimed at putting nukes on Israel and points beyond. With today's comments, the NATO Secretary-General seems to be echoing a point we've made before. On-going efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem have simply "kicked the can" down the road, delaying the inevitable day of reckoning.
But that day cannot be postponed indefinitely. And it's about time the smart people in Washington, London, Berlin, Paris and Turtle Bay come to grips with it, and devise a new approach.
Unfortunately, that prospect is nothing more than a diplomatic pipe-dream. Mr. Scheffer's description of the security council as "rather incapable" could be applied to a lot of governments (and international institutions) that have soft-peddled the Iranian threat for years.