Who Can Hold Iran Accountable? Two-Thirds of the World

Over the past few months, Iran has showed continued defiance in face of demands by the international community to answer questions about its nuclear program. Meanwhile, the country's internal turmoil following the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as President Obama's attempts to open dialogue with Iran have impacted the regime's coherence and strategy in responding to criticisms and demands about its nuclear program. This fracture in the elite manifested itself most notably during the talks held in Europe between Iranian negotiators and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council when Iranians agreed in principle to export most of enriched uranium to Russia for processing. Once they returned to Iran, the Iranian leadership reversed that promise in an unprecedented show of disunity.

Following the reversal and Iran's refusal to meet the U.S.-imposed deadline to respond to the UNSC permanent members' proposal, the United States is lobbying for harsher sanctions, targeting the Iranian elite. The question of whether sanctions can be effective in dealing with Iran was the topic of a conversation I had earlier this week with David Bosco, the author of Five To Rule Them All.

Prior to joining the faculty at American University's School of International Service, he was a senior editor at Foreign Policy (FP) magazine between 2004 and 2006. His book, Five To Rule Them All, was chosen as one of the year's 20 most influential foreign policy books by Embassy Magazine. It is arguably the most comprehensive and informative history of the United Nations Security Council.

"I'm very, very skeptical that sanctions would ever compel Iran to abandon its nuclear program," Bosco told me. He believes this partially because it is highly unlikely that Russia and China will get on board with any sanctions against Iran. And if they do, the kind of sanctions that Russia and China would be willing to vote for will be so watered down that it will have virtually little or no effect.

The fact that there is tension between the Western UNSC members and Russia and China on a host of issues relating to Iran is not a big secret. When the U.S. tries to push for action on Darfur and other human rights crimes around the world, it consistently receives the cold shoulders from both countries. And the newly emboldened China even managed to single-handedly block meaningful and enforceable consensus on climate change at the recent summit in Copenhagen.

So the question of how to get China to cooperate on Iran turns into the broader question of what can we do to gain leverage in our diplomatic dealings with China and Russia in general?

Bosco believes that a lot of China's strength comes from the perception of strength in Washington policy circles. "The perception in the U.S. is that China has a lot of leverage, and that's important, because perception is what matters." But as he explains, as far as American debt to China is concerned, the latter is not going to stop lending if it believes that it would lead to the collapse of the American economy. Just like a banker is most willing to negotiate new terms with someone who is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy, China, too, will do what is needed to help America get through this recession.

So China is going to keep lending us. That still doesn't give us more leverage. How can we gain the upper hand in that regard in relations with China? There are two ways: pay the debt, or reform the UN.

How likely is it that we can pay our debt in the near future? Not very. We are still recovering from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, and most economists continue to believe that at this point, what can help the U.S. economy is more government spending that can lead to jobs and economic stimulation. Cutting domestic spending to pay off nearly 800 billion in debt can bring the American economic activity to a halt. Even if we were able to pay off our debt in such a short period of time, we would still not see eye-to-eye with China on a number of issues -- like Taiwan, Tibet and internet censorship -- and would continue to see Chinese opposition to our resolutions in the Security Council.

So that leaves us with the second choice: reforming the UN. The topic often leads even the most liberal and pro-global government experts to sound deep cynicism and declare any such reform both insignificant and impossible. While David Bosco shows some of that skepticism, he does not announce the prospects of such reforms dead on arrival.

Bosco believes reform is not likely right now, but not for the same reason that most people do: Security Council will veto any change that would force it to submit to a more equitable distribution of global power. He pointed out that any change to the makeup or functioning of the Security Council must come from the general assembly, and what has actually led the talk of reform to go on for as long as it has without any real change is that most members of the general assembly have not been able to agree on the changes. Should 2/3 of the general assembly agree, it will go to the Security Council, which must give the final vote.

One may be inclined to point out that the Council members could then go ahead and veto reform anyway. While they can do that, Bosco believes it will be highly unlikely because of the tremendous political and diplomatic pressure that will come from a 2/3 majority, regardless of the makeup of that majority.

In Five to Rule Them All, David Bosco addresses many of the misconceptions about the most powerful international body. But as he points out, the reality is that while the Security Council has fulfilled the function of forcing the great powers to avoid major conflict by keeping them in regular dialog on critical issues, it has performed poorly when it comes to addressing other major conflicts and issues around the world, such as the ongoing human rights crimes and nuclear proliferation.

Despite all the cynicism from across the political spectrum toward the U.N., one must recognize that as long as we do not have a powerful international body, we will be unable to address the major issues of this century, such as war, human rights crimes and climate change. In order to get there, we must constantly and vigorously push our political leaders to advance reform.