In recent days, we have seen the future of diplomatic machinations with Iran, and it is messier and more alarming than before. Its challenges are rooted as much in America's peculiarities as Iran's, and now, as well, in the newfound muscle and assertiveness of new major powers. These realities won't evaporate and will increasingly frustrate Americans above all.
The Obama team was right to preempt the Brazil/Turkish pact on nuclear exchanges with Iran. It was basically an Iranian scam to circumvent new United Nations sanctions and other limitations on its nuclear programs. But Brazil and Turkey were also right to pursue their separate diplomatic track and solution. They were reflecting the mounting attitude in the world that Washington's anti-nuclear proliferation policy essentially serves American interests and not those of most other nations. And from their point of view, they were simply doing what the United States has been doing all along, namely protecting their own interests first. That is the story lost in current news accounts.
The United States will not be able to sustain this highly self-centered and highly differentiated anti-nuclear policy. It could survive during the Cold War in the face of a uniting threat from the Soviet Union, but not now.
Here's the story of the Brazilian and Turkish revolt against U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy, and what can be done about it:
As is clear, Iran maneuvered Turkish and Brazilian leaders into an agreement to dispatch a limited amount of low-enriched uranium to Turkey for conversion into fuel rods, which would then be shipped back to Tehran for use in its ailing medical reactor. This arrangement, however, still leaves Tehran with a considerable amount of uranium, potentially usable to enrich to weapons-grade material. The deal also is silent on Tehran's fulfilling its legal obligations to allow full and open inspection of its nuclear facilities. And it is also obviously intended to deflect American efforts to ratchet up economic sanctions against Iran. Nonetheless, Washington moved ahead on that front and reached agreement on a draft Security Council resolution to impose tougher sanctions (with the participation of China and Russia), suggesting that Iran's ploy is failing.
That's the surface story. But the driving factors behind this diplomatic drama have barely been touched by analysts. In the first place, many, if not most, nations around the world simply do not feel anywhere near as threatened by Iran (or North Korea for that matter) as do the United States, Western Europe, Israel and other American allies. In private, they lift their eyes toward the ceiling when the Americans and Israelis levitate about an Iranian nuclear weapon. They just don't believe Tehran would be stupid or self-destructive enough to launch a nuclear attack. You can even include China in this group.
Meantime, the high-stakes diplomacy of Brazil and Turkey shows that the good old days of most nations automatically supporting U.S. non-proliferation efforts is over. These countries have their own foreign-policy and business interests, and will be less and less inclined to deny their own interests or follow what they see as Washington's self-contradictory and self-serving actions. Here's what they see:
— North Korea almost certainly already has several nuclear weapons in decades-long defiance of Washington's threats. And it is likely responsible for recently torpedoing a South Korean naval vessel. Yet, Washington hardly ever threatens the lunatics in Pyongyang, and has recently even been downplaying those very threats.
— India, a nuclear weapons state, hasn't signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet, the United States agreed to build nuclear power plants in New Delhi. Far worse, it agreed that nuclear-power plants supervised by the Indian military would not be subject to international inspections. This exception deeply undercuts the international inspections regime so essential to stopping proliferation. Sure, Americans want to sell nuclear goodies and sundry to India and to gain Delhi's backing against China. But these are American business and strategic interests, not shared nearly to the same degree by most others. America's hypocrisy here is lost on no one.
— Pakistan, also not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, went ahead and developed a large and growing nuclear arsenal. This is especially troubling because Pakistan is a highly unstable nation, increasingly vulnerable to a takeover by Islamic extremists. Yet all Washington seems able and willing to do about this is to help Islamabad secure its nuclear arsenal. Everybody knows why: Washington needs Islamabad as a partner in the Afghan war. That good reason hardly suffices for most others. America's hypocrisy is lost on no one.
— Israel certainly has nuclear weapons, and no U.S. government has, or will, or should challenge this. Israel has good need for an ultimate deterrent against those who would try to destroy it. As crystal clear as that proposition is in America and Israel, it is decried and damned as special pleading the world over. The Iranians raise it in every conversation about their "peaceful nuclear program." America's hypocrisy is lost on no one.
The United States will not be able to sustain this highly self-centered and highly differentiated anti-nuclear policy. It could survive during the Cold War in the face of a uniting threat from the Soviet Union, but not now. What Brazil, Turkey and Iran did, will be replicated in years to come. The best and perhaps only way for the United States to retain most of its nuclear cake is to let others munch upon it as well. U.S. administrations should not denigrate or try to sidetrack these inevitable diplomatic efforts by new major powers. Instead, the White House should embrace them and, at the same time, instill in their diplomacy what remains a critical common interest in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons—the absolute need for credible and intrusive inspections into the nuclear operations of all countries developing "peaceful nuclear power."
A strong inspections regime is far from a cure-all. A little muscle and some goodies always help. But it is a wedge that countries entertaining nuclear thoughts may find less unacceptable than economic sanctions and military threats. And in a world where others are ever disinclined to embrace American interests and policy contradictions, it remains common ground. And in that common ground rests some power to prevent nuclear proliferation.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.