Last week, the United States turned to the United Nations in an attempt to increase pressure on Iran. The U.S. wanted to expand sanctions against the budding nuclear power.
Neither China nor Russia would go along. And faced with the prospect of one or the other vetoing sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice punted. She put off further action against Iran until at least November.
It's hard to see how much will change in a month. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is firm in his opposition to sanctions. "Interference by way of new sanctions would mean undermining" the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as it puts pressure on Iran, he said.
This is a charade. The statement came three days after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that, based on his talks with IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei, he considered the nuclear file closed. Not only could Iran continue enriching uranium regardless of U.N. Security Council resolutions, the Iranian president said, but Tehran could also export its enriched uranium and nuclear know-how to other Muslim countries.
Yet, the Bush administration continues to seek agreement with Russia with Ms. Rice's undersecretary Nicholas Burns talking about Washington's desire for "compromise" with Moscow. British Foreign Minister David Milbrand is no better. He puts unity above all else: "The most important thing is that the unanimity of the international community."
The debate over Iran then reflects two much larger debates: Whether foreign policy should be unilateral or multilateral and whether it should be based on "realism" or on principle.
Unilateralism, of course, has become a dirty word since the invasion of Iraq. But international venality -- expressed in French and Russian business deals with Saddam Hussein -- had undercut sanctions against Iraq. That left Mr. Bush with little choice other than to stick with a failing multilateralist policy or to act unilaterally.
Now we're seeing that in the case of Iran, "realism" and multilateralism may be mutually exclusive in the effort to curtail proliferation. Or put another way, multilateralism empowers Moscow and Moscow isn't inclined to make a multilateral sanctions regime effective.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, realism is a zero-sum game that maximizes Russian power at U.S. expense. The U.S. can seek Russian cooperation, but for Russian realists, inaction looks like the best option. A nuclear capable Iran is inimical to Russian interests, but Mr. Putin may have seen in Mr. Bush's soul a commitment to deny Tehran nuclear capability at any cost. So why not profit both financially and strategically?
Russia and China have made billions as enablers to Iran's military ambitions. Less than a month after the 9/11 terror attacks, Moscow signed a $7 billion arms deal with Tehran. The Iranian government has paid Russia's state-owned Atomstroiexport more than $1 billion to construct the Bushehr nuclear plant. A 2003 CIA issued report credited Russian, Chinese and North Korean experts for Iran's ballistic-missile advances.
Alexander Denisov, deputy director of the Russian Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation said bluntly in 2005, "First of all, we have to count in our national interests. In Syria, we have a huge market, over 80% of Soviet-made arms. The same is true about Iran." Late last year, Russia's state-run Rosoboronexport shipped a $700 million air-defense and missile system to Iran. Last month, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said his government had won a Russian commitment to complete the Bushehr reactor prior to a visit by Mr. Putin to Tehran later this month.
While a nuclear Iran would threaten U.S. national security and shred the international non-proliferation regime, a U.S. military strike on Iran would be costly. Iranians may find Mr. Ahmadinejad odious, but they may respond to a strike by rallying around the flag. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard is also capable of striking anywhere from Baghdad to Buenos Aires and is able to set Lebanon and even northern Israel aflame.
On Sept. 29, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed the ability to monitor all movement in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf. The threat is clear: Any conflict with Iran could drive oil over $120 a barrel. This would likely hurt the U.S. economy, but it would also accelerate Russia's return to a dominant position in the world.
Russian realists relish such a scenario. The Kremlin has converted its multibillion-dollar oil windfall into power and influence. Mr. Putin has increased defense procurement by more than 50% over the past two years. Russia has developed a new class of nuclear submarines and a new generation of nuclear missiles. Moscow leverages money into military strength.
Already, Russia uses European aversion to conflict to its advantage. The same European leaders upon whose good faith Ms. Rice pegs U.S. national security have been willing to demote the Czech Republic and Poland to second-class status within NATO to assuage the Kremlin.
During the George H.W. Bush administration, Ms. Rice was the point woman for Soviet affairs on the National Security Council. She distinguished herself for poor instincts with her opposition to Ukrainian independence, among other issues. What Ms. Rice believes conciliatory, Mr. Putin sees as weakness. She may confuse realism with idealism; Mr. Putin, the former KGB apparatchik, will not.
Realism may prevail, but not Washington's realism. The defiant Mr. Ahmadinejad offers the White House a stark choice: Live with a nuclear Iran, or take action to stop it. Winning Russian approval is a chimera, delaying an inevitable decision.
Mr. Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.